An NPR story today tells a commonly-experienced tale:
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...
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.Nor is that mental file restricted to humans:
"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.My mother was one to have to work through all the names to get to the one she was talking to. I found, in some ad hoc research twenty years ago, there is at least one way to get reclassified to your own mental bin.
Of course, you don't get to pick the new file into which you are sorted. There's a good likelihood, however, that you may get sorted into the one for alien beings- like the family cat.
It worked for me. But then the file got closed, permanently.