Dennis Marek: What the heck is his name?

November 19, 2018

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are dreaded words in our aging society.

There is no known cure and no silver bullet presently that will cure this mental decline. As we age, it seems the first category of things we forget is the name of that person across the room. We don’t forget the names of our children and close family, nor the names of close friends. We don’t forget the names of our former teachers or our many pets. But we do start to have trouble remembering names of people not quite so close to us or whom we haven’t seen for a while.

Perhaps the brain does have its capacity limits similar to our computers. But it seems as we age, whether we have over-crammed our brains with too many names or because we are unable to recall as well, there are no answers yet.

I recently read the average person can recognize 5,000 faces. Now, these faces can be those of people we know, faces of people we don’t really know but have seen, faces of celebrities, presidents, other people in the news or even infamous people whom we would rather not remember, such as Al Capone or Lee Harvey Oswald. There has been serious research on these recognitions. Names were not essential in getting credit for identification as long as the person could describe that recognition such as a role in a movie, a U.S. Senator or a star basketball player with the Bulls. Some know or recall more faces than others, but the average American came up with about 5,000.

If we think about it, in early times, a settler in the west only might have come into contact with a few hundred faces, saw no movies or rock concerts and had no newspaper photos or TV coverage of current events. Their number of known faces would be quite limited.

But today, we are exposed to so much more. The average American can recognize a photo of at least 10 presidents and yet probably never has seen one in person. While most could recognize hundreds of movie stars from Bing Crosby to Morgan Freeman, they couldn’t recognize as many football or baseball players, as their faces often are covered with hats or helmets.

So, I wonder, why can we recall faces in these large numbers and not names? Is it harder to recall a word than an image? I haven’t found any similar research on name memory that can equate to the literature on facial recognition.

But not to worry, say your friends; as we age, we all start to forget people’s names. I agree, but I certainly don’t like it. I remember watching the late senator and legislator, Ed McBroom, as he mixed with people. He knew name after name. Obviously, this was a boon for any politician, but did he practice to keep that ability? Then again, would it help? Once the name comes up, most people then can recall the rest of the relationship, be it work, school or some social event.

Society does try to help us as we wither. Name tags at receptions and certain events let us avoid stupidity when we see someone whose name should be on the tip of our tongues and, unfortunately, is buried far too deep in our brains, I recently attended The Hundred Club’s dinner with speaker Oliver North. There were hundreds of attendees. Some of the people I had not seen for years, but at one time, I had had business or social interactions with them. I recognized face after face, but struggled with placing names on some of those people. Thank God we had nametags, but the material for the tags was not very sticky, and many had lost their tags. Then, the struggle with memory began.

How do we cope with this problem that seems so commonplace with us of the older generation? My wife knows if an introduction is not quickly forthcoming, she will stick out her hand and say, “Hi, I’m Cathy.” Almost always the person over whose name I am stumbling grasps her hand and introduces him or herself. Saved again.

We can try to put a name with an object, color or event. But this works only when you know you are about to encounter someone. I had trouble remembering my son’s city in California until I decided to associate it with a color. Red. And then I recall Redwood City.

Recently, a fraternity brother of mine tried to comfort his friends with a brief description of brain function comparing the brain to a computer that has maxed its capacity. The explanation of name forgetting was “scientifically” described as natural and totally understandable. Unfortunately, the quip went on to explain why we walk out of a room and forget what we wanted to get, and then return to the original room to bring back the thought. It described that process as the brain telling the body it needs more exercise. So, both explanations lost their credibility, but they were funny.

The other day, I was discussing a problem with a bank officer for a client. When I had finished, she asked if I remembered her. I confessed I didn’t. She then explained I had represented her after a traffic accident for her insurance company. Then, she told me it had occurred in 1984.

So, I will remember Errol Flynn’s and Natalie Wood’s faces as well as those of Franklin Roosevelt and Michael Jordan, but if I seem at a loss when I meet someone whom I have helped in the distant past with a legal problem, played golf with on one occasion or met once at the Symphony, stick out your hand and say, “You probably don’t remember me, but … ”

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