Whenever I meet new people, I try my best to remember their names but just have SUCH a hard time of it. I’ll remember their faces for years after we’ve met, but I’m lucky to remember their name for more than a few minutes.
I always considered myself a bit of an odd case, but it turns out that particular trait isn’t as unique to me as I’d thought. Two psychologists gave an interesting insight into as to why faces are so much easier to remember than names:
Names referring to people are arbitrary and totally unrelated to anything we’re familiar with. We can recognize apples, cars, and knives by their shape, but there’s no way to remember why some person is named James, Bob, or Matilda. They just are, with no connection in our minds.
Names are long, sometimes with 3 or more strung together. To remember someone accurately, you need to remember ALL the names, not just the easy first name. Even worse, some people (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Saoirse Ronan, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) have names that are hard to pronounce, much less remember.
There are no synonyms to names. While “shoes” is a synonym for clogs, pumps, and rocket boots, “Bill” isn’t a synonym for Harold, Wilhelm, or Ulrich.
On the other hand:
Faces can resemble other faces we’ve seen. You have no idea how many people have told me, “You remind me of X family member”, usually due to my height, but sometimes my blue eyes, brown hair, or some other facial feature. Our mind can make connections and find the “synonyms” with other faces.
Shapes are easier to remember than sounds. Children can learn the SHAPE of letters faster than they learn the sounds. Babies know what circles look like before they recognize the word “circle”. Studies have proven that we remember what we see more than what we hear.
Your brain places more emphasis on visual stimuli than auditory. One study found that visual stimuli (emotion-eliciting pictures) could modulate the response to loud, sharp, unexpected, and abrupt sounds, but sounds didn’t alter the reaction to visual stimuli. Another study found that we react to the SIGHT of threats more than the SOUND of them.
The information here won’t help you be any better at remembering the names of the people you meet—you’ll have to find other tips and tricks for that—but at least it gives you an understanding of WHY you remember faces so much more easily.