August 24, 2020 | 12:20

Your Name Is The Most Substantial Word

The Most Substantial Word

Language is powerful. It is the tool that allowed us to grow and evolve as a civilization, go to the Moon, build robots, cure diseases, and do tons of other stuff. The spoken language is the interface of communication between people. It is a bit messy and ambiguous, but it did a decent job of passing on the knowledge from older to younger generations.

Not all words are equal, though. Some are simplistic, while others are powerful. Your name is one of the most substantial words you can hear.

You start hearing it from the very beginning of your life, and it becomes you. As mentioned in How People Learn — The Brain Basics, the more you repeat something, the more robust neuron interconnections that store that piece of information become. Therefore, our name has one of the strongest circuits in our brain, and it seems to have a special treatment in the processing of incoming information.

There is unique brain activation specific to one’s own name in relation to the names of others. Also, the patterns of activation when hearing one’s own name relative to hearing the names of others are similar to the patterns reported when individuals make judgments about themselves and their personal qualities.1

Even during sleep, the brain is able to process one’s own name comparable to how it happens during wakefulness.2 If to go even further, patients behaviorally classified in vegetative states are showing cerebral responses to hearing their own name spoken by a familiar voice.3

An Attention Grabber And A Liking Point

Speaking from my personal experience, you have a higher chance of grabbing someone’s attention by just calling the person by their name. And if you want to make a person like you a tiny bit more, use their name in the conversation. Don’t just “Hi!” people, use “Hi, <name>!” instead. It just feels good when someone remembers your name. It is a small thing that can make a huge difference in how you approach people.

Forget Me Not

But if one’s name is so important, why do we forget it the second we hear it, although you quickly recognize the face of that same person after days of not seeing them?

The answer lies in how we perceive information. As I elaborated in How People Learn — Human Senses, conscious attention has a very low throughput. The hearing sensory channel has about 30 bit/sec processing capacity. If, on average, a first name consists of 6 letters, it’s 48 bits of information to remember (plus you need to match the name with the person, which adds an extra amount of bits to store). Committing a piece of information to memory for the new neural circuitry to form and consolidate requires time and effort — you have to repeat the name a couple of times to remember it. But you usually don’t have that luxury in a conversation — you have to listen to your interlocutor and think of what to ask/answer them.

Tips To Remember Names

Here are some hints (with the brain in mind) on how to remember the names of people you meet:

  • Stay focused. Attention is very volatile, so you need to be focused when the other person says their name. Sometimes you literally do not recall the name of the person in the first 5 seconds after introducing themselves. That’s because you didn’t pay attention when they said their name.
  • Repeat it right after you hear the name. “It’s nice to meet you, <name>." Early repetition is critical in remembering one’s name, and there’s no better opportunity than to do that right after the person has introduced themselves. It allows for initial pattern formation and increases the chances of remembering the name.
  • Find something relatable. A person’s name is abstract, not representing anything by itself. If I say “banana,” you know what I mean, whereas “John” does not tell you anything about the person. Besides, our brains learn information with less effort when that information is associated with something we already know. Therefore, try to associate the person and their name with something familiar to you. Maybe that person resembles someone you already know, or they have an accessory (hat, glasses, piercing, etc.) that someone with the same name you know also has.
  • Exaggerate things. In case you cannot find any resemblances with your acquaintances, try to exaggerate some aspect of the person that stands out. For instance, if a person has a bigger/smaller nose, ears, eyes, moles, try to imagine the person with those parts bigger/smaller. Thus it will be easier to memorize the person.
  • Repeat it at the end. Generally speaking, the more you repeat something, the better you remember it. And it is natural to say someone’s name at the end of the conversation.

I hope these tips will help you remember that name next time!

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  1. Dennis P. Carmody and Michael Lewis—Brain Activation When Hearing One’s Own and Others' Names ↩︎

  2. Fabien Perrin, Luis Garcia-Larrea, Francois Mauguiere, Helene Bastuji—A differential brain response to the subject’s own name persists during sleep ↩︎

  3. H. B. Di, S. M. Yu, X. C. Weng, S. Laureys, D. Yu, J. Q. Li, P. M. Qin, Y. H. Zhu, S. Z. Zhang, Y. Z. Chen — Cerebral response to patient’s own name in the vegetative and minimally conscious states ↩︎


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