I have three sons and they are all convinced I don’t know their names. Sure I was there when those names were selected, truth be told I picked each of their names, but now these many years later I can look each of them right in the face and call them by each other’s names. Sometimes I even manage to call them by my brothers’ names. I had long assumed that it was age or distraction causing me to mix up five names of people who look nothing like each other. But there should have been a clue in my behavior. I never call anyone else my sons’ or brothers’ names. And I never call them by other people’s names.
My boys express annoyance at me when I confuse them. My brothers, both fathers, understand this cognitive glitch all too well.
Did it mean I secretly loved one of them more? Did it mean that I wasn’t focused on them or wasn’t really “seeing” them when they spoke to me? Was my brain deteriorating and this was just an early sign?
I had a lot of questions about this, and cognitive science, it seems has some of the answers. Dr. Samantha Deffler of York College surveyed 1700 adults and provides some reassurance and explanation.
First, almost everyone does this at some time.
Second, it is not a result of a bad memory or of, thank goodness, aging. People of every age mixed up names and there was no correlation with age
Third, we scramble names up because they are in the same “category.” I don’t call my friends by my kids’ names. I don’t call work colleagues by my brothers’ names. The filling system in our brains groups people by their meaning to us and when we go to retrieve a name, we go to the category and sometimes grab the wrong name. It’s as if the mind is a big filing system and in our mind’s haste to say the person’s name we grab the right file but draw out the wrong piece of paper. We mix up friends with friends and family members with family members.
Fourth, guilty. Moms do this more than other people. One of the most common misnaming is mixing up your kids with each other. Our brains have filed them in the same place because the relationships are the same and when we go to grab a name, it can be a pretty random experience which one we select.
And finally, it turns out that we often throw our dogs names into that “family” file in our brains but not our cats. Mulligan thinks this might be because we truly consider our dogs as members of the family.
To learn more listen to NPR where Samantha Deffler a cognitive scientist at York College and Neil Mulligan, a cognitive scientist at UNC Chapel Hill, explain: