As I Get Older, Why Does My Memory for Names Seem to Deteriorate?

This question was posed on a Scientific American Blog. The response provided by Professor Paul Reber reflects what we currently understand about memory.1 The first point to realize is that remembering names is a problem for most of us, regardless of age. There is a common expression “I can never remember a name, but I always remember a face.” This expression is wrong on two counts. First of all, regardless of age, some names are remembered. Secondly, regardless of age, some faces are not recognized or are mistaken for the wrong person. Unfortunately, the legal system has mistakenly adopted this myth, with the result of many innocent people being wrongfully convicted (Enter “Eyewitness Testimony” into the search block). Nevertheless our memories for faces are good, and the brain has special facial recognition circuits. Names are frequently forgotten, and there is a reason that names are difficult to remember. The mind is not a camera. Recall is a creative act that changes our memories whenever we recall. During recall our brains recall traces and then try to reconstruct a coherent, meaningful response. That is why mnemonic techniques are procedures for turning input that is inherently not meaningful into something meaningful that we recall. Sometimes this recreation can be too creative and recall something that did not occur.

Suppose you see somebody at your son’s baseball practice. You remember this person as being the father of one of your son’s teammates. You are able to recognize his son, and you also are able to remember that he is an accountant with a daughter in addition to his son. Furthermore, you remember that he recently became a widower and is now a single parent. You are able to recall all this information, but you cannot recall his name.

How can this be the case? How can you remember all this information, but still suffer the embarrassment of failing to recall his name? The reason is that what you can recall is meaningful information. Unfortunately, his name is arbitrary and essentially meaningless.

As was mentioned, absent the use of mnemonic techniques to remember names, this occurs throughout our lives. Perhaps these failures become more frequent as we age, but there are techniques for countering these failures. See the healthymemory blog post, “Remembering the Names of People.”

1Reber, P. As I Get Older, Why Does My Memory Seem to Deteriorate? Http://

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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