What’s in a Name?


By David Buice


For women, the memories that come with someone’s name contain much more detail—and here’s why

Most of us have had the awkward experience—often at the worst possible time—of struggling to remember the name of someone we’ve recently met. But some recent studies have shown that the odds are greater you’ll bring the name up from your memory bank if you’re a female rather than a male.

Episodic memory

Though memory is essential to human existence, recent scientific studies have concluded there are distinct differences between females and males in what we remember and how we remember it.

One key type of memory is what scientists call “episodic memory,” defined as consciously recollected memories related to personally experienced events. A Swedish study conducted in 2008 concluded that women have a slight advantage in episodic memory, but that advantage varies depending on what kinds of things are to be remembered.

Specifically, the study indicated that women appear to do better remembering speech, where they left something, and what happened in a movie or television program. In contrast, men seem better at recalling abstract information and navigation data. In other words, if you need driving directions, it’s probably better to ask a man—it’s a stereotype, but one that bears out some truth in this particular instance.

Recollecting those names

In a memory study conducted at Canada’s McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, researchers concluded that women are better than men in recalling the names of individuals they’ve recently met.

Men and women recruited for the Canadian study were shown dozens of pictures of randomly selected faces with names attached, and told to remember them.

Researchers then divided the participants into two groups. They tested one group on their face/name recall after one day and the second group after a four-day interval.

Women in the one-day group did much better than men in putting names with the faces they had seen the day before. Women in the four-day group also did better than their male counterparts, though the difference was not as great as with the one-day participants.

Explaining the difference

So, how did the researchers explain the superior ability of women to accurately put names with the faces they had recently encountered?

The eye-tracking technology used in the study provided an answer to this question. Recording eye movements as participants looked at the faces, the technology showed that compared with men, women have an innate knack for fixating on the eyes, nose, and mouth of someone they’ve just met, a tendency that appears to give them an advantage in remembering the names that go with the faces they’ve recently encountered.

As Jennifer Heisz, one of the research leaders explained, “The way we move our eyes across a new individual’s face affects our ability to recognize that individual later. We discovered that women look more at new faces than men do, which allows them to create a richer and more superior memory.”

“The results open the possibility that changing our eye movement pattern may lead to better memory,” explained David Shore, one of Heisz’s research colleagues. “Increased scanning may prove to be a simple strategy to improve face memory in the general public, especially for individuals with memory impairment, like older adults.”

This skill in scanning faces is subconscious for women as humans do not normally notice where their eyes fixate. But even though we may not consciously realize what we’re doing, these findings could shed light on how to better remember the names of people we meet.

In short, when it comes to names and faces, scan more to recall more.

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