Why do we remember faces but forget names?

forgetful

The experience is common to most of us and is often intensely embarrassing. We meet a man we recognize, but we can’t remember his name. Or we know him well, but can’t recall his wife’s name – and hope that we don’t have to introduce the couple to somebody else.

Sometimes, we remember absurd details about a person whose name we forget, such as the kind of car he drives, or that she likes Bach. And usually the harder we try to remember, the more elusive the name becomes. Panic, as many exam entrants know can prevent the collection of elementary facts. Conversely, high emotion is undoubtedly a memory aid. Most people can recall precisely what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated. And psychologists say that most first-year university students more easily recall love affairs of that time than specifics of their studies.

The fact that we can remember one face among so many is in itself remarkable. Most of us would¬† have no difficulty in recognizing several thousand people, but it seems that the process of identification works in reverse. Shown an photograph of, say, John McEnroe, the first response might be: ‘He’s a tennis player – the one who’s always arguing with umpires.’ And then, if we can recall it, would come the name.

For some reason, it appears that the brain sores information about names in a separate compartment. To unlock that store, we have first to go through others.

People suffering brain damage sometimes lose certain functions. One man was able to divide a pile of photographs into but he had the greatest difficulty in naming any of them. In similar tests, nobody has yet found a patient who could name people, but not identify them in some other way, adding perhaps an occupation or a person’s nationality.

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