Names (and the Role of Memory)

My wife, R, can remember the names of the other children who were in her kindergarten class 35 years ago. She can do the same with most of her teachers and former classmates from Grades 1-12 and also from her undergraduate and graduate courses. However, sometimes she forgets the key details from books she read just a few weeks ago or movies that she’s already watched.

I can only remember the name of one teacher from public school (I’ll blog about why another time) and none from high school or university. I also can’t recall the names of my former classmates, even though I played with many of them on sports teams. I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes I even forget (albeit temporarily) the names of the people I work with regularly in my office. However, when I was in school, I could easily memorize the information from my school text books, sometimes word for word. And while I struggle tremendously with names, I usually remember people’s faces and the conversations we’ve had, even if they happened many years earlier.

In social settings, the ability to remember names is viewed as a positive attribute. I don’t believe the same is true for memorizing conversations. Perhaps I’m easily forgettable, but sometimes I meet a person who doesn’t seem to recognize me but I can easily recall a conversation we had years earlier. It would likely just freak them out if I took a moment to outline the details of our previous discussion. Although, I suppose it’s quite possible that they’re just pretending not to remember me.

At work, I occasionally let people tell me the same news or information a second or third time, even though I know exactly what they’re going to say. I suppose that’s weird, but this lets me shift my attention away from their words and focus instead on their expressions and body language, which I’m not always good at interpreting.

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