The science behind putting a name to a face

We’ve all been there: you stumble into the first lecture of a new module, and there she is, waiting outside – that girl you danced with in a club a few days ago. She’s got a nice face, you remember that much, but what’s her name? You rack your brains, and come up with squat. Just completely blank – the connection between name and face refuses to form. A lot of people have this trouble with the fast-paced hyper-connected world of uni. Is there a scientific explanation? One is that you may suffer from prosopagnosia: facial blindness. More than likely though, you’re just having a bit of trouble adjusting to the pressures of university life.

First of all, we can look at the sociological explanation: living in a city can lead to prosopagnosia, supposedly as we live alongside far larger amounts of people than our tribal caveman brains are used to and refuse to acknowledge that most of them are there. In this way it’s how many people make it through first year without learning the names of everyone in their halls – whereas can you imagine if you didn’t know your neighbours’ names at home in your small town? You would be considered rude! Your brain changes as you move from country to city, and reacts to meeting people in a totally new way – learn everyone’s name, or ignore most people? Guess which is easier.

Another factor in this phenomenon is the “next in line effect”. This means that when introducing yourself to someone, you may have a problem in that you’re focusing on your own lines rather than listening to what they have to say. This means you might not take in their name, or worse, you might be too busy wondering how you look to take in their face. Your short term memory is a bit of a leaky sieve, only able to focus on a small amount of things at a time.

If, like me, you are terrified of the embarrassment when you forget a new friend’s name, I wouldn’t suggest plastering photographs and names all over your bedroom walls in an effort to remember things as the room will quickly resemble the den of a conspiracy theorist. Try a simpler tactic, such as admitting your mistake and moving on, or sneakily introducing someone else to them, wherein they will hopefully cough up their name when they go “Oh, nice to meet you Laura. I’m Dave.”

If you want to try testing out how good you are at linking a name to a face, the BBC has a handy little Flash game I found whilst researching this article:

If you want to learn more, there is also a brilliant Youtube video by ASAPScience which explains the next in line effect really well and is worth a watch.


Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *