You're Showing Your Love When Your Brain Scrambles Names
7 minute read
It happens to the best of us: that moment when your loving mother tries to call out to you only to run through the names of each of your five siblings, the cat, and the dog before finally saying your name. In fact, you’ve probably done the same thing yourself while trying to get the attention of a loved one.
The critical element here is “love.” The reason that names get all scrambled up in your brain is because they fall into one memory pool: a pool of people that you love.
Research has shown that mixing up names is common, but it most often occurs when it involves names of family members and friends. It is so common that scientists label it a “normal cognitive glitch.”
It has nothing to do with bad memory or aging and everything to do with how your brain categorizes names.
Your brain can be like a computer
Think of it as a special folder containing all the names of the people that mean the most to you. Anytime the wrong name is called out, it came from that same group of people.
The most recent study found that mothers most frequently mix up names. Whether you are a mom or have witnessed your own mother do this, you can likely confirm this is true.
Amidst their busy schedules, moms find themselves having to grab a kid to help with groceries or to let the dog out and their brain scrambles through the list of names in their family folder.
Just because your name is the last one called doesn’t mean you’re the least important! Her brain just had to get through a few names to find yours, and this is not always easy when you’re busy and distracted.
Sometimes you may feel slighted when even the dog’s name is called out before yours. It’s nothing personal; pet’s names are often stored in that same cognitive folder of loved ones.
When you think about it, pets become part of the family, so it makes sense that their name gets thrown into the mix. The study found that the dog’s name is more likely to be called out over the cat, hamster, or birds, but this depends on how integrated into the family the pet is.
An avid “cat person” will likely store their cat’s name in the same folder as loved ones. The same goes for bird lovers and so on.
There are those times when calling the wrong name out can get you in trouble. Everyone remembers the infamous Friends scene in which Ross said Rachel’s name instead of the bride’s during his wedding ceremony.
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This did not necessarily mean he loved one woman more than the other! Both names were filed away in his memory as loved ones, and, when it came time to recall one, the names got jumbled.
He could have just as easily said his sister’s name, but that wouldn’t have had the same dramatic effect. In reality, this can happen despite what might be our true feelings, and it can get us into hot water.
Your Loved Ones and Your Brain
The love we feel for our family members is rooted deeply in attachment. In particular, when it comes to the first people we truly bond to in the world: our parents.
You could say that it is their love and attention that allows attachment and security to develop. This sets the standard for what you expect in all relationships moving forward.
The love you have for your parents and then your immediate family is the first love you know. Essentially, these people and their names become the first to be stored in a cognitive file in your brain labeled “loved ones.”
Your brain has a reward center within the limbic system which controls emotional responses and the release of chemicals like dopamine. Dopamine causes us to feel good, so much so, in fact, that many drugs are based on offering the same effects.
Whether you develop a bond and love for your family members or a romantic interest, the brain releases similar chemicals. Think of them as little tags that become associated with a person and every time you are with them, you feel a certain way.
Obviously, the love you have for every person is different. The love towards a parent differs from the love towards a child, which differs from the love towards a partner, spouse, or dear friend.
Regardless of the attachment, the chemical response is the same. These people are all tagged with a ‘love’ chemical and stored into one place in your brain.
The problem with names in particular is that they do not form as strong of a connection in the brain as memories, smells, or sounds do. When it comes time to recall a name, the connection is there but it is not immediate, which is why people sometimes have to run through a few names first.
Thankfully, people you have made the strongest connections with are easier to recall. The trouble arises when you have a large “folder” of these names to pick from. Throw in some stress or panic and the brain has to work even harder to pull the right information.
The Bottom Line
It may not be your name, but it’s still love. Granted, your mother may be yelling because you’re in trouble, but if she calls you by your brother’s name, then your sister’s, and then the cat’s, it means your name is stored away in her “love” folder.
Just smile at her when this happens. Or, when you do the same thing to your kids and they pout or make a smart comment, you can remind them it means they are loved.
Of course, if your mom yells your name without hesitation and throws in the middle name too, you may still be loved, but you are definitely in trouble!
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