What’s Your Name Again?

Senior moments aren’t just for oldsters anymore. And when it comes to memory lapses, proper names often are the first things to flee your mind.

THE OTHER DAY a friend mentioned that her book group had recently read the 1930s novel Butterfield 8.

“Who wrote that again?” I asked. “I’ve forgotten.”

She laughed. “I can’t recall now, either.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “One of us will remember in about 20 minutes.”

And sure enough, a short while later, after we had moved on to another topic of conversation, my friend suddenly shouted, “John O’Hara!”

No matter what your age, you’ve probably had a similar episode recently. An inability to recall names—whether the name of a dead author or your very alive next-door neighbor—is the most common memory complaint. It’s the most worrisome as well, particularly among those in the 40-plus generations.

“When we start experiencing the normal [memory] changes that happen with aging, we start thinking, ‘Uh, oh. Something’s wrong.’ But it’s not. We’re all going to have ‘senior’ moments,” says Susan McPherson, a professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota. Temporarily forgetting the name of a close friend isn’t something to be concerned about. But if you are given a list of five names and still can’t identify which one belongs to your pal, then you may have a problem.

It’s often more challenging to remember a person’s name than other personal details (her occupation, the college he went to, the number of children a couple has). Memory experts refer to this as the “Baker-baker effect”: You’re more likely to remember someone is a baker than to remember his name is Mr. Baker.

People are also more likely to temporarily forget the names of friends and acquaintances than of celebrities they’ve never met. When participants in one study were asked to record all the names that got stuck on the tip of their tongues over a two-week period, they reported that two-thirds were those of friends and acquaintances. Only 17 percent were the names of famous people.

Why are names—even those we use often—so difficult to remember? “Proper names are basically abstract, so the name is meaningless by itself,” explains Joseph Melcher, a professor of psychology at St. Cloud State University. Unlike the names of common objects and concepts, names of people don’t carry enough semantic meaning to be properly encoded in our brains. When we learn the word apple, for example, we are able to store it behind many “doors” in our brain—those labeled “fruit,” “object that grows on trees,” “tastes sweet,” “inspiration for the law of gravity,” and so on. When we later attempt to recall that word, we have a variety of meaningful routes by which to access it.

Scientists used to think that such forgetfulness resulted from a natural and inevitable loss of brain cells as we age. Newer research, however, has identified deteriorating synapses (the points of communication between neurons) as the source of most age-related memory problems.

As our neurons have more difficulty talking to each other, it takes us longer to locate the lonely place where we’ve stored the name of our cousin’s wife or neighbor’s baby. In addition, decades of stuffing our brains with names and other proper nouns may cause our brain circuits to overload.

“The longer we live, the more names we know, so the more likely we are to get names confused with other names,” says Howard Thorsheim, a professor of psychology at St. Olaf College in Northfield. “This memory interference is a major reason for forgetting a lot of things, not just names.”

All is not lost, however. Memory gurus have devised various techniques that they claim can help most people (even aging baby boomers like myself) regain and improve their neural synapses—and their ability to recall names.

I DECIDED TO SEE if one of those techniques could help me with a recurring memory challenge: remembering the names of 22 students in the course I teach twice a year at a local university. Despite my best efforts, I usually fail to connect all the students’ faces to their names until the 10th session or so.

It turns out such blocks are not unusual. When college professors in a memory study were shown photographs of their students only 11 days after their courses ended, the teachers were able to accurately recall only about one-third of the students’ names. (Each course had fewer than 40 students.) After one year, they remembered only 6 percent of the names, and eight years later, they could recall none of their former students’ names. I was determined not to become one of those absent-minded professors.

For help, I turned to Melcher, who recommended a mnemonic technique he’s used for years to memorize all his students’ names. He takes a photo of each student. Later, he studies the pictures carefully, looking for a distinctive feature on each student’s face. He tries to associate that feature with the student’s last name, using an image as “bizarre and unusual and interactive as possible.”

Say a student with dark circles under his eyes has the surname Pucksheva (highly unlikely, but play along). “You could associate the dark circles with hockey pucks and then imagine those pucks shooting out of his eyeballs,” says Melcher. And how to remember the second syllable of the name? Think “hockey”= “ice” = “cold” = “shiver” = “sheva.”

Sounds easy enough. So, on the first day of class, I posed each of my students against a wall for a mug shot. Melcher had warned me to make sure they didn’t smile during the photo shoot. “If you learn a smiling face, it’s more difficult to remember the face when that person isn’t smiling,” he says. “And, typically, students are not smiling in class.”

I like to think my students have some fun listening to me, and I guess they do, because when I downloaded the pictures at home, I found at least half were smiling, despite my strict instructions to imitate a felon.

My experiment tainted, I forged ahead anyway. For 45 minutes, I meditated on my students’ spiked hair, horn-rimmed glasses, high foreheads, and facial piercings to create sci-fi-like images that I hoped would sear their names onto my brain. After struggling to memorize the students’ surnames, I concentrated mainly on remembering their first names.

If I had graded myself at that point, I would have given myself a C. But that evening, amazingly, I was able to recall each student’s full name. I hesitated briefly before only two students; both had come to the second class without props (eyeglasses and a hat) that they’d worn when photographed.

So I didn’t have a “bad memory” for names after all. “The strength of your memory and your likelihood of recalling something is directly proportional to the effort that you put into it,” Melcher says.

Yeah, I’ll try to remember that.

Susan Perry wrote about genetic testing in the May issue of Minnesota Monthly.