We mix up family members’ names out of love

Better Than Yesterday

When searching to say your name in a crunch, does someone you know run through a list of names, sometimes even the family dogs, before they retrieve the correct one? Perhaps you have done this yourself.

Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean you are losing it. It does not mean your memory is poor or aging. It simply means you love them.

Mark Twain once said that wrinkles were merely indications of where smiles have been. Similarly, running through a list of names before you recall the one you need is a sign that you have many people who you love.

Samantha Deffler is a cognitive scientist at Rollins College. In her study published in Memory and Cognition she found mixing up names is a normal cognitive glitch.

“It’s not related to a bad memory or to aging, but rather to how the brain categorizes names. It’s like having special folders for family names and friends names stored in the brain. When people used the wrong name, overwhelmingly the name that was used was in the same category,” Deffler said in an interview with NPR. “It was in the same folder.”

Most people have physical files at home where they store things that are similar. Bills, documents, certificates, things that are important. Your memory also has files. We may categorize people in files such as those we know from work, from school, from the gym etc. When we see them outside that file it can be confusing.

I remember walking into an elementary classroom in Marquette when I was student teaching. There was a boy in the class who I’d coached for a week at hockey school that summer. I was stored in his hockey school folder. When I walked in the door in a shirt and tie he turned in his chair and exclaimed in shock, “Whoa! No way!” His brain was blown away to see me in a different context. Teachers get this all the time when a student sees us outside of school and is surprised we exist outside the school walls.

When you access the name of a loved one your are accessing a file of names containing those closest to you whom you think about often. One might even use this as a litmus test of who is in the loved ones folder!

Don’t be insulted that your mother called you the family dog’s name. It just means that the dog is in the loved ones folder, too. They are an important member of your family, too.

All right, well how come cats and other pets don’t seem to get their names in the folder? We don’t seem to categorize other pet names in the same family folder. Perhaps it is because they don’t exhibit as many human qualities and emotions as dogs. Or maybe because we have not said their names thousands of times like we have our dogs.

There was one group of people who were especially prone to the naming mixups.

“Moms, especially moms,” Deffler said. “Any mom I talked to says, ‘You know, I’ve definitely done this.'”

Moms have a strong loved ones folder. If you’re a grandmother, and you seem to run through a lot of names before you get to the name you want, feel good. You have a lot of people in your life you care about. Look at it as a sign of a blessed life, not of getting old.

Micah Stipech is a counselor at Houghton Elementary School and owner of CrossFit Hakkapelliitta.

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