When The Brain Scrambles Names, It's Because You Love Them

Jan 16, 2017
Originally published on January 18, 2017 10:42 am

When Samantha Deffler was young, her mother would often call her by her siblings' names — even the dog's name. "Rebecca, Jesse, Molly, Tucker, Samantha," she says.

A lot of people mix up children's names or friends' names, but Deffler is a cognitive scientist at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Fla., and she wanted to find out why it happens. So she, and her colleagues, Cassidy Fox, Christin Ogle, and senior researcher David Rubin, did a survey of 1,700 men and women of different ages, and she found that naming mistakes are very common. Most everyone sometimes mixes up the names of family and friends. Their findings were published in the journal Memory & Cognition.

"It's a normal cognitive glitch," Deffler says.

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 says. It was in the same folder.

And there was one group who was especially prone to the naming mix-ups.

"Moms, especially moms," Deffler says. "Any mom I talked to says, 'You know, I've definitely done this.'"

It works something like this: Say you've got an armful of groceries and you need some quick help from one of your kids. Your brain tries to rapidly retrieve the name from the family folder, but it may end up retrieving a related name instead, says Neil Mulligan, a cognitive scientist at UNC Chapel Hill.

"As you are preparing to produce the utterance, you're activating not just their name, but competing names," he says. You flick through the names of all your other children, stored in the family folder, and sometimes these competing names win.

Like in the classic scene from the TV show, Friends. When Ross says his wedding vows, he is asked to repeat his fiancée's name, Emily. He says his former girlfriend's name Rachel instead.

Now Ross probably had both Rachel's and Emily's names in his mental folder of loved ones and a mental mix-up ensued.

And it's not just human loved ones that are filed together.

"Whatever dog we had at the time would be included in the string along with my sister Rebecca and my brother Jesse," Deffler says.

So your family dog typically gets filed with other family members. This of course sparks the question — what about your family cat?

"You are much more likely to be called the dog's name than you are to be called the cat's name." Deffler says.

This implies that psychologically, we categorize the dog's name along with our family member's names, according to Mulligan.

"And we don't do that with cats' names, apparently, or hamsters' names or other animal names," Mulligan says.

Maybe that's why we call the dog man's best friend.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A thing I am totally guilty of, David - messing up names. I've definitely called...

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah.

MARTIN: ...My kids the wrong names. I know it's really...

GREENE: That's terrible.

MARTIN: No, it's very confusing in my household. Have you ever done that? Have you ever called your wife another name?

GREENE: No, absolutely not. And I can't believe...

MARTIN: Of course you wouldn't.

GREENE: ...You called your kids the wrong name.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREENE: That's horrible.

MARTIN: OK, it turns out I am not alone. Don't make me a pariah here. Most everyone does this. It's not random. There is a pattern to it. And Michelle Trudeau is going to explain.

MICHELLE TRUDEAU, BYLINE: Sometimes a scientist investigates a problem prompted by early personal experience. That's what happened to researcher Samantha Deffler from Rollins College.

SAMANTHA DEFFLER: When I was young, my mother used to call me by my siblings' names and by the dog's name.

TRUDEAU: It sounded like this.

DEFFLER: Rebecca (ph), Jessie (ph), Molly (ph), Samantha. (Laughter).

TRUDEAU: Not a big deal - but as a cognitive scientist, it got Samantha Deffler thinking.

DEFFLER: Why this happened, why these types of errors occurred and what the cognitive processes might be underlying these errors.

TRUDEAU: So she surveyed over 1,700 people - men, women, different ages - asking about name mix-ups. And she found naming mistakes are very common. Most everyone does it. Deffler calls it a normal cognitive glitch - not related to a bad memory or to aging, but rather to how your brain categorizes names.

DEFFLER: Overwhelmingly, the wrong name that was used was in the same category.

TRUDEAU: Meaning the same relationship category, like a special folder of family names and a different folder for friends' names stored in the brain.

DEFFLER: So I was being called other family members' names. I was never being called one of my mother's friends' names.

TRUDEAU: Deffler says misnaming happens across the board, to men and women, from college students to older adults. There was one group especially though.

DEFFLER: Especially moms. Any mom I talk to says, you know, I've definitely done this.

TRUDEAU: It works something like this. Say you've got an armful of groceries and you need some quick help from one of your kids. Your brain tries to rapidly retrieve the name from the family folder but...

NEIL MULLIGAN: It may end up retrieving a related but incorrect name.

TRUDEAU: That's Neil Mulligan, a cognitive scientist at UNC Chapel Hill.

MULLIGAN: As one is preparing to produce the utterance, you're activating not just their name but competing names.

TRUDEAU: The names of your other children stored in the family folder.

MULLIGAN: And sometimes these competing names win the battle, and they actually influence the articulation that you produce.

TRUDEAU: Like in that classic scene from the TV show "Friends" where Ross gets his wedding vows just a little bit mixed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")

PETER EYRE: (As The Registrar) Now, Ross, repeat after me. I, Ross...

DAVID SCHWIMMER: (As Ross Geller) I, Ross...

EYRE: (As The Registrar) Take thee, Emily...

SCHWIMMER: (As Ross Geller) Take thee, Rachel...

TRUDEAU: Now, Ross probably had both Rachel's and Emily's names in his mental folder of loved ones, and a mental mix-up ensued. And it's not just human loved ones that are filed together.

DEFFLER: Whatever dog we had at the time would be included in the string along with my sister, Rebecca, and my brother, Jessie.

TRUDEAU: Your family dog typically gets filed with other family members and thus mixed up with other family names. This, of course, begs the question, what about your family cat?

DEFFLER: You are much more likely to be called the dog's name than you are to be called the cat's name.

MULLIGAN: And that's interesting. And it implies that, psychologically, we categorize the dog's name along with our family members' names, and we don't do that with cats' names apparently, or hamsters' names, or other animal names.

TRUDEAU: So no need to worry if you do this, Mulligan says reassuringly. It's just an ordinary snafu in pulling up the right name from the right folder on demand. The findings are published in the journal of Memory and Cognition. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.