Our memories define us. They make our lives recognizably different from that of everyone else. Memories give our lives meaning. By storing and processing every experience we’ve ever had they give us a reference point to compare every new encounter to. Memory allows us to learn and not just about the procedure of doing things or for the successful completion of an examination, but it allows us to learn about ourselves and those around us. Memory keeps track of the stories of our lives and our loved ones. After all, that is why we panic when we begin to notice small lapses in memory. It is the idea that we will lose ourselves, forget who we are, forget about what we’ve meant to our communities, and forget about the ones we love that frightens us.
Memory loss is not a straight forward issue. It is often complicated because so many things can contribute to memory problems. From stress to vitamin deficiencies, from toxins like alcohol that shrink the brain to chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes that cause structural damages, and the disease that scares people the most…Alzheimer’s. While memory loss is a complicated issue to figure out and manage, even more complex is forgetting names. Immediately forgetting people’s names is not necessarily a sign of dementia. Names of people are difficult to remember. We have a place in our brains that is hardwired to remember faces but there are no locations in our brains that are primed to remember the names that go with those faces. In order to remember something, we first have to learn it. The way that we learn a name is that when someone is introduced to us neurons need to be stimulated, synapse activated, and neural pathways reinforced. The more information that the name of a person gives you, the more neurons that will be stimulated and the stronger the connections between between those neurons, making it more likely that the name will be remembered.
Part of the difficulty with remembering names of people are that names are random. When someone says the name “Claudia” it tells you nothing about that person. It doesn’t conjure up any image in your mind since all Claudias look different. It tells you nothing about who they are as a person, what they do for work, or what their passions maybe. Unless you have a strong connection to that particular name or find an emotional reason to make a conscious effort to remember her name, it doesn’t stimulate a lot of neurons to begin the process of turning it into a memory.
People names also don’t have any synonyms to bail us out when we experience a lapse in our memory. When speaking about someone, to be clear who you are talking about, you need to you his or her name. With other words, when a word is on the tip of our tongue or we can’t find the specific word we want to use, we can just swap it out for a word or phrase with exactly the same meaning, and our conversation partner is non the wiser.
Names of people tend to be low frequency words. I maybe speaking to someone named “John” but I never have to use his name in our conversation. I never have to use his name in any conversation I ever have with him. When we repeatedly use a name we stimulate more neurons and strengthen those neural connections. We hard-wire that name in. However, because the use of people’s names doesn’t occur as frequently as other words, it makes it much tougher to build on and strengthen those neural connections.
The inability to remember names of objects is different than the ability to remember names of people. Names of objects symbolize the knowledge we acquire over time, the relationships that a particular object has a with it’s environment and with us, as well as facts about the object. If I mention a television, you can bring up an image of a TV in your mind’s eye. You know immediately what people use it for, and other facts and concepts about it. The inability to remember the name of objects usually implies a much broader cognitive problem which can be due to pathologies in the frontal and temporal lobes. On the contrary, the inability to immediately remember people’s name can solely be because the name didn’t spark enough of an interest in our brains.