What’s in a Name? Not Much
“Christopher Walken!” I shouted to no one. After four days of mounting frustration over my inability to remember the name of one of my favorite actors, up it came, to my great relief. To be honest, drawing a persistent, four-day blank trying to recall his name is still bothering me. I’ve got a pretty good memory retrieval system for everything else, but what is it about names that makes them so elusive?
I know I am not the only one asking this question. The difficulty over remembering the name of someone we’re being introduced to is a favorite topic on the Internet, for which neuroscientists and behavioral experts have ready answers. Our brains are wired to remember a person’s face or occupation, they say, but brain cells just don’t get all fired up over an arbitrary choice made by one’s parents in one’s infancy. Then there’s the annoying custom of being introduced to a room full of strangers. The average brain’s short-term memory storage capacity is simply too small to absorb a cascade of new and basically unexciting information. Another explanation is the nature of the brain’s filing system. A marvel of efficiency, it asks each bit of new information, “Are you important enough to be transferred to long-term memory?” What would it be like, carrying around in our heads a lifetime of irrelevant information, if our brains were not such vigilant gate-keepers?
Still, these answers do not explain why I had such a hard time retrieving the name of Christopher Walken, meaningful information that my brain had filed away a long time ago. Why forget his name and not a name that has no meaning like, say, Kim Kardashian? I am willing to face up to the fact that this may be one of those questions in life for which there are no answers.
May 24, 2015