We might assume that remembering faces and names puts similar demands on the brain, but neuroscience shows they are, in fact, governed by completely different processes.

"I'm good at remembering faces, but terrible at remembering names." How often has someone said this line to you at a meeting or a party?

But how true is this common refrain? By going on a little journey into the psychology of memory, I want to show you that what our memories do with faces and with names is not as straightforward as it might seem.

It is true that humans are experts at recognising faces. Most of us could name thousands of them, and it is something we tend to do easily and automatically. To a neuroscientist, this is a clue that this is a difficult problem made to seem easy because there is a lot of machinery in the brain dedicated to the task.

And so it transpires. There is a part of the brain dedicated to recognising faces – called the Fusiform Face Area – positioned in the part of the brain called the Temporal Lobe, which can be found roughly in the area behind your ears. If you have a brain injury that damages this part of the brain, you'll know people by their clothes or their voice, but you just won't be able to recognise them from their face, even if you have perfectly normal vision. There is even a form of inherited weakness in this brain region, so that whole families can be notoriously bad at recognising faces, including each others'. This condition, known as prosopagnosia, was made famous in Oliver Sacks’ book The Mind’s Eye, where he revealed that he is face-blind himself.

But these people are the exception to the rule. We are generally so good at recognising faces that we tend to see faces even when there aren't any, such as in the random patterns made by clouds and rock formations on the surfaces of other planets, which is a side-effect of having a brain specialised for this function.

What’s that yellow thing?

What is interesting is that we do not appear to have a corresponding brain region for remembering names. What we do have are brain regions dedicated to remembering words – and names are special examples of words. Get a brain injury in these regions and you would end up forever struggling to find the names for people and things. You might recognise a banana, know that it is a delicious yellow fruit and even have a good recipe for banana muffins, but you would be unable to conjure up the word to tell other people what the thing you are looking at is called.

It is tempting to conclude that when people say they are good with faces but not with names, it somehow means that their ‘face area’ is bigger or better connected than the ‘name area’. But, in fact, something more interesting than a simple imbalance is going on. There is a crucial difference between the kinds of memory task we are usually asked to do with faces, compared to the task we have to do with names. Or to put it another way, we might use the same word – ‘remember’ – to describe our ability to place faces and names, but in fact we are describing two different psychological processes: recognition and recall.

Let us return to the party to see the two different processes in action. Imagine you are looking at the faces of the guests. You catch someone's eye and maybe you ask yourself, "Do I know this person?" This is a recognition task – a facial recognition task to be precise – and the answer is either a simple "Yes, I recognise them", or a "No, I've not seen them before".

Total recall

Later, you are talking to an acquaintance and you have to introduce them. This is the name part of the memory task, and it is about recall rather than recognition. Politeness demands that you say, "This is my friend X", and you have to fill in X with the correct name. A simple yes/no answer will not work here.

In other words, faces are given to us – they are there when we look at the person we are thinking about – and all we have to do is know whether we have seen them before or not. Names, on the other hand, are hidden in memory and we have to retrieve them, which is a far harder psychological task. But once you realise that recalling names is just intrinsically harder than recognising faces, you need not be too hard on yourself for forgetting your neighbours’ or co-workers’ names anymore. Instead, you could try some fundamental psychology tricks to help you remember them.

Experiments on memory have shown that simply trying hard to remember things doesn't really help. Of far more use is to repeat the thing you're trying to remember, and to form associations with it. So if you want to remember names, you need to use them frequently when you first meet a person. You might have noticed people doing this with you. You say "Hello, I'm Ravi", and they say "Hello Ravi, what do you do in life?" or something similar, immediately practising using the person’s name.

If there is someone whose name you really need to remember, you should make an image in your mind that connects their name with something you have found out about them, ideally combining both in a striking or absurd image. So, for example, if you meet a Jennifer, and you find out that she is from Alaska, you could imagine her standing in the centre of a snowy town (Alaska is cold, right?) and wearing a fur coat (for JenniFUR). Just spending a few seconds building a mental image around the name will create hooks of memory, which will let you recall the name next time you meet her. Practise this method and you need never be embarrassed at another party.

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