Question:

In general, I think I have a good memory—dates, places, details. But I seem to have a problem with names. Why is that?

Answer:

You’re not alone in forgetting names or confusing the names of acquaintances, celebrities and others. It’s quite common to be able to describe someone’s appearance or recount biographical details about the person while the name remains on the tip of your tongue.

There has actually been research suggesting that proper nouns—especially people’s names—are often harder to remember than other words. One possible explanation is that, aside from Cher, Madonna and a few others, a person’s name usually includes a first and last name, while most things are described with one word. So names simply require the recollection of more words. Another theory is that names often include unique sound combinations (such as actress Charlize Theron), which can make them harder to recall.

Another possible reason for name recall challenges is visual overlap. When trying to recall the name of an actor, for example, you may see one person in your mind’s eye, but attach the name of a different actor who resembles them. If your greater concern is remembering the names of new neighbors, for example, repeat their names when being introduced and use the names frequently at first to help cement them in your memory. Using mnemonic devices, such as assigning sound-alike words to a person’s name or coming up with melodies that include the person’s name, can help, too.

Maurizio Fava, MD, is the director of the Division of Clinical Research at the Mass General Research Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of Mind, Mood, Memory, a publication of the Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Fava hosts a column where he answers readers' questions related to brain health.

This article originally appeared in Mind, Mood & Memory, a publication of the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, dedicated to maintaining mental fitness for middle age and beyond.

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