What’s your name again? The psychology of and power behind remembering names

Zsa Zsa Gabor once said, “I call everyone ‘Darling’ because I can’t remember their name”.  More likely she had a paid assistant to remember them for her, so there was little point in wasting those brain cells of hers on storing such pedestrian information.  Would that I could lead the celebrity life.  I might even put up with the paparazzi.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a personal assistant, so I’ve generally had to make do with a phenomenal memory. I can usually remember word for word what you told me two weeks ago and I can tell you which specific words you used along with the inflection used when you said them. This can be a little annoying to others, but that explains why many years ago I not only thought I would be an attorney (who are professionally annoying), but I also got into law school and worked tracking international criminals at the Department of Justice.  But I woke up one day realizing I needed to a psychologist just as my mom had always said I was meant to be, or perhaps already having experienced the lawyerly perspective and found it wanting, decided to heed Hamlet’s Ophelia, when she observed, “We know what we are but not what we may be”.  Well, I decided being a psychologist was more my kettle of fish. Having a great memory is also a great skill for a psychologist particularly when you have tons of staff to monitor who themselves tend to have large memory lapses (ahem, the oft cited excuse “oh I don’t recall being told that I should show up to work on time”).


So, all this is to preface a conversation about names.  You see, Ms. Reese Witherspoon, America’s latest sweetheart to fall from grace, was both bold enough and feeling especially entitled, to ask her arresting police officer “do you know my name?” To which the police officer reportedly answered “No, I don’t need to know your name….right now.”  Interestingly, she asked “do you know my name” and not “do you know who I am?” She eventually did go on to advise him that he was soon about to find out who she was. There is a bit of a semantics game afoot here. Knowing someone’s name is slightly different from knowing who they are.  I know this all too well.  Surprisingly, as someone who has a great memory, I have developed a perplexing knack for forgetting people’s names. It just happens.  And nobody buys it if I call them “Darling” – seems you have to be a Gabor for that to work.  I try the tactic of repeating someone’s name when I meet them, but the loudly and repetitiously stated name just vanishes from my consciousness.   It flutters away just like a butterfly in a newly discovered garden, or like a dream that you try hard to remember upon waking up, but after seven seconds it is gone, never to be recovered.  I wasn’t always like that.

Initials engraved to be remembered forever at an old Fort

Initials engraved to be remembered forever at an old Fort

There was a time when I remembered people’s names. I could attribute this to growing older (the horror), like George Burns, who observed “First you forget names, then you forget faces. Next you forget to pull your zipper up and finally, you forget to pull it down”.  For obvious reasons, I prefer to attribute my increasing inability to remember names to our information-saturated world.  We are bombarded with information from countless mediums at a pace that would horrify our ancestors.  How many passwords do you have to remember, how many account names, how many tasks, how many important dates? When overloaded with information, something has to give.  Maybe we only use 10% of our brains, but the other parts are probably handling important stuff like avoiding getting hit when crossing the street while emailing a client, and juggling a phone to handle the latest work crisis simultaneously.  The brain may not be exactly like a computer, but to borrow the metaphor, where at one time a single processor could handle the volume and pace of information on a normal day, we now need parallel processing to handle multiple things happening at the same time.  All without getting hit by cars or tripping over tourists.  And memory for names seems to be a low priority.


And I’m not the only that one that forgets. Scientifically and evolutionarily, it makes some sense.  Scientists recently found that while memories can be recalled several hours after forming them, they are inaccessible to most humans for a certain period of time immediately after taking them in.  Aha! Although it is not fully understood why such an inaccessibility happens, it is believed to be because the brain engages in a process to avoid overloading with information. Thus names get stored, but aren’t accessible for a while. And perhaps if you meet many people over the course of your week and you also are conducting research, supervising 10 people, writing and reviewing documents, maintaining a blog or two, and holding about eight meetings a day (that is 40 meetings a week!)–those names stay stored for a just a little bit longer before bubbling to the surface.


When rap music started taking off (and thereafter), injecting one’s name into the lyrics became somewhat common practice, making rappers seem a bit egocentric to say the least.  For example, what was one of Eminem’s first hits? It was “My name is..”

Hi! My name is… (what?) My name is… (who?)
My name is… [scratches] Slim Shady
Hi! My name is… (huh?) My name is… (what?)
My name is… [scratches] Slim Shady


But why did rappers and hip hop artists widely adopt such a practice? I mean, I just didn’t get it at first. Why would they want to put their name in the song, thus making it less likely I could inject myself into the song. Wasn’t music about transporting someone’s consciousness to another realm? I felt odd singing “My name is Slim Shady”. I could substitute and say “Mimi Shady”, but the rhyme just didn’t scan.  Why then did they insert their names? Conclusion–It was about power.


There is power in asserting one’s name and there is power in not remembering a name. I often harp on semantics, but words certainly have meaning and there is always the need to pay careful attention to how words are or are not used. Rap music came from the streets. Specifically, it came from the broken down, beaten down, and oft-forgotten streets. Rap music became a vehicle for the poor to remind others that they existed and that their existence did not reflect pop culture’s widely depicted (and exported internationally) middle class existence. Stating their name was a way of making rappers heard. It was a way for them to be a permanent fixture in the public consciousness.


If you were to google the topic of rappers repeatedly stating their names, you would most likely come across answers that note it is all about ego and narcissism; or that it is a tad bit about branding. If you notice many people will state that Elvis actually cribbed from Black musicians. Consequently, many felt ignored, dis-empowered and eclipsed by Elvis’ stardom.  Take that then to its logical conclusion that stating their names over and over again is a way of branding and marking their territory.  And of course preventing some hillbilly from stealing their tunes.


Ms. Witherspoon’s question about whether the cop knew her name was a bit telling, a quick peek into her psyche even if she had more than a few drinks. Maybe if she had asked first do you know who I am, the cop may have answered “you are the Legally Blonde chick?” or “yeah, you played June Cash, right? Now you may have to really walk the line” bad pun intended. Did she really think people would readily know her name? That people should readily know her name? Maybe she should rap it sometime.  Wasn’t she in some bad elephant movie recently? Now there is a creature that has a great memory.  Did you know that the elephant brain is denser than the human’s, and the temporal lobes, which are associated with memory, are more developed in elephants than in humans.  Supposedly this is so because elephant’s lobes also have more foldings, so that they can store more information. That’s why elephants have excellent memory Elephants can recognize over 200 different individual elephants.  That’s a pretty good memory. How many people can you recognize or remember the name of? Elephants, because they rely on each other to help raise the babies, really do need to distinguish one from the other. But us humans, honestly, how many people do we really know or need to remember overall?

Supposedly the brain has to decide whether it is worth expending energy to consolidate specific memories. The brain certainly has a restricted capacity to learn things and preventing some memory formation is a very reasonable way to avoid information overload.  Forgetting names for later retrieval can definitely help ease the brain burden. However, according to research out of Kansas State University, it’s not your brain’s ability that dictates how well you remember people’s names, but how motivated you are to learn them. For example people in politics or teaching may be better at remembering names because knowing names is beneficial to their livelihood, according to researchers. That is why remembering names, or rather not remembering names, is also a sign of power. Who you decide to remember says a lot about the power dynamics and differentials, personal aspirations and perceived utility and worth of the individual to be remembered (or not). Who you remember vs. who you do not remember says ultimately a lot about where you are heading in life.

I used to be really good at remembering people’s names. But now that I have risen up the corporate ladder and when I meet someone their name just goes in one ear out the other unless I think I am going to see them again or work with them on an upcoming project, which does make sense if one goes back in time when most names had some sort of original meaning, usually descriptive.  For example, the name of Benjamin early on signified “son of the right hand.” Historically, it would seem to me that the best names were those that signaled an occupation such as Baker, Brewer, Weaver, Taylor and Smith.  But my sudden onset of name forgetfulness has as much to do with the sheer number of meetings I am in now and my calculations (both conscious and unconscious) on who it is that I have to remember. At times, I barely remember even my own name. Just for kicks, I walked around with a name label at work the other day just to see how people would react. No one dared to really question why I was doing that. But I think it was a good exercise in demonstrating I was a bit loopy.

Many of our forbearers believed names held power over the individual. For instance, The Talmud maintains that names exert a mystical influence over the individual, and a change of name is one of four actions that can help ward off an evil heavenly decree, that would subsequently lead to punishment after one’s death. Ouch. That is pretty scary and enough to make one think twice about changing that god-awful name a parent bestowed upon us.  Maybe those wacky celebrities should think twice about those names they pick for their kids (i.e. Moroccan Scott; Kal-el Cage; Fifi Trixibelle…). Furthermore, in terms of the power of names there is the stipulation in Catholic exorcism  that the uninvited demon taking shelter in the unwilling human cannot be expelled until the exorcist has forced it to give up its name. We have seen this on the television show Supernatural at which point the guys use the demon’s name commanding it to go away.

So, the lesson here is if you are a demon, don’t rap. If you meet a demon, be sure to make space in your brain to remember their name.

6 replies »

  1. Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all and commented:
    Very interesting. I used to need to learn about a hundred names every 12 weeks or so. I am great with faces…so what I did is make a nickname or rhyme or anything silly to attach it to a persons’ name. This helped me tremendously. Example: Brittany-With-The-Braids

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