It’s Not That I Wasn’t Listening But I Can’t Remember Your Name

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One time I called a good friend of mine and her husband answered the phone. I consider her husband a friend, too, if but one layer away in the circle than my friend. The point is – I totally know his name.

“Hello?”, he husks out in his lovely voice. A voice with which I am very familiar.

“Hi… um… oh, jeez… It's Michelle! I'm so sorry… my mind is blank…”

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. The horror, really. To not remember my own friend's name.

I know that he totally felt like I don't really care about him in that moment. Like all of those cool conversations over dinner and annual Halloween shared family events meant nothing to me.

“Brandon”, he says, laughing. He's so kind. See, there are so many reasons to like him. Which I totally do!

I was so mortified that I can't even remember what I said next to feebly try to make up for the terrible slight of forgetting his name. I just remember that he did his best to make a joke of it and I was so relieved when he handed the phone to his wife. Of course, I did everything I could to keep her on the phone as long as possible in hopes he'd somehow forget this whole terrible mess and not tell my friend that I forgot her husband's name – the guy who takes our family holiday photo for us every year.

This is, of course, not the only time I've forgotten a person's name.

In fact, pretty much every time I meet someone new, I forget their name. Even when they totally impressed me. Even when I am so impressed that I develop a “friend crush” on them and have fantasies of long Saturday morning coffee conversations about our deepest thoughts and dreams, I can easily forget their name.

The thing is, I swear I truly was listening when I was first told said name.

I've read stuff about this over the years – articles that come across my screen and in doctor's office magazines. Most of them say that if you don't remember a person's name then you probably weren't really paying attention when they told it to you.

I get that. I can see how distraction (which is a problem for me at times) can make it hard to listen well to a person. But frankly, I've checked on this a thousand times and I am not distracted. I am truly listening. Hell, nothing fascinates me more than great conversation with a person – and a new person with real connection possibility is such a jackpot. I am totally listening.

So, then what's with not remembering their name?

After simply one too many situations where I avoid talking with someone who I would like to visit with again – because I couldn't remember their name – I decided to do a little research and find out what might really be going on for me.

It turns out, I actually have been listening.

I knew it! (Or, at least, there are other possible explanations for the name memory thing.)

Since I'm thinking there might be one or two of you out there who struggle with the same thing (I know it, actually, because I've commiserated with many of you about this very topic), I figured I'd share what I learned in my research. Maybe you'll feel vindicated, too – or at least more accurately understood for this annoying name-forgetting affliction.

Two theories really rang fascinating for me:

A faulty dentate gyrus (which means I need to exercise more – damn!) & the brain's shifting gifts (if you hear this as “aging”, you are right on. But, really now, isn't everyone's brain aging?!).

To keep this simple (which is all my brain can do right now anyway – having not exercised in hours and recently had an extra sweet margarita – ole'!), the dentate gyrus problem is something about glucose not processing right in this part of the brain. Exercise can help this, of course, because exercise helps everything (which would make a rational person wonder why one wouldn't exercise all the time. I should wonder it more, really.) What I love about this theory is that it completely supports my absolute certainty that I truly am paying attention when you tell me your name. It's something that happens after you tell me your name that causes the problem – and it's in some little part of my brain that I have little control over (except the damn exercise thing.) A way better explanation of this whole thing can be found in this Scientific American article.

The second theory I really liked was the one where my brain is just busy doing more meaningful things, like solving world problems and making interesting connections between things. The little details (which names would fit into in this case, though I know a person's name is such a meaningful thing for them) get tossed aside by more complex thinking. This resonates for me because I actually remember virtually everything about the person, except their name. I will remember their stories, what they do for work, how many kids they have or their world travels. I remember what mattered to them when we spoke and even the way they talk, with particular inflections and idiosyncratic movements. It's just the name that escapes me!

Things go a little awry in this New York Times article I read on this aging brain phenomenon because I couldn't find anything I could actually do to get better at remembering names in this situation. The focus became largely on ways to create more connections in your brain so you could continue to expand your own brain function. This greater brain function wasn't as concerned about remembering names.

I feel better, knowing that there is evidence (beyond my own feeling of certainty) that I can really be genuinely present with a person and still not remember their name.

I hope you do, too – if either I forget your name when we meet, or if you forget someone else's (including mine, which I truly don't feel bad about, seeings as I completely get it.)

That said, I am still seeking strategies that truly help with remembering names. Because, frankly, no matter how fancily I explain all the reasons I might forget someone's name, I also know that it feels a little crappy, after a lovely conversation, when we meet again in some unexpected place and I can't say, “Hello, Your Name! So good to see you again!”

So, please – do you have any strategies that really work for remembering names? (Aside from exercise, which any minute now I am going to ramp up big time, thank you) because I'd so love to hear them.