I was happy to hear Michelle Trudeau’s “When The Brain Scrambles Names, It’s Because You Love Them”on NPR. Her interview with Samantha Deffler, a cognitive scientist at Rollins College, helped alleviate some of my growing anxiety about my ability to remember names.
Although Deffler pointed to her research on how common it is for people to sometimes mix up the names of family and friends, my mix up are more often about orators and rhetorical theorists. While a mom might go through a list of her kids names when addressing a particular child, I sometimes now find myself saying “Cicero, Plato, Isocrates, ah yes, Aristotle” as I reach to find a name.
My students find this amusing; come to think of it, that’s one of the things I like about teaching online: students don’t hear me grasping for a name!
I remember my grandmother running through the list, “Mary Ann, Barbara, Jimmy, Kathy” when she was going to chastise me for something; my mother sometimes did the same.
Deffler says “It’s a normal cognitive glitch,” and Trudeau adds that it’s not a matter of bad memory or getting old; instead it’s how the brain categorizes names. “It’s like having special folders for family names and friends names stored in the brain.” So when we land on the wrong name or go through a list to get to the name we need, it is often because those names all belong in the same category.
However, there is one point I think Deffler gets wrong. She says we are much more likely to be called the dog’s name than [we] are to be called the cat’s name.” Phooey! Neil Mulligan, a cognitive scientist at UNC Chapel Hill, concurs suggesting this implies that psychologically, we categorize the dog’s name along with our family member’s names: “And we don’t do that with cats’ names, apparently, or hamsters’ names or other animal names.”
Clearly these scientists and those they study aren’t familiar with the kind of cats I and many of my friends know. Cats who live large and demand it all, right here, right now!
I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t have children. They might not feel special as they’d hear “Johnny, Scooter Pie, Bonnie, Monty, Rocky, Reilly, K.C.”