ColumnistsMy Turn

What’s Your Name Again?

Is this inability to recall names the onset of something ominous?

By Bruce Frassinelli

reminderEr, what’s your name?

I don’t know about you, but it drives me crazy when I do not remember names of those whom I have met previously. Putting names to faces is often an exercise in futility for me.

Have you ever gone to a function and seen a person whom you had met on numerous previous occasions but can’t for the life of you remember his or her name? So frustrating.

What is really depressing is when I go to a big function and am introduced to maybe a dozen people I never met before. Within a minute, I cannot remember a single name.

Of course, the first thing I conclude is that I am getting so old that I am forgetting names. Then I catch myself. Wait a minute! This is nothing new; I have been doing this since I have been in my 30s.

I am told that I am not alone. Of all the social “senior moments,” none is more common than meeting someone, introducing yourself, then immediately forgetting the person’s name.

When I encounter someone I had met a while back or someone whom I have not seen in a long time, I start the conversation with “Hi, I’m Bruce Frassinelli.” In my own mind, I am taking the person off the hook in case he or she has forgotten my name or can’t put the face with the name.

I get a variety of responses to this approach. Sometimes, it seems that the person is offended and replies, somewhat in a huff, “I know who you are.”

Being in the public eye, I at times encounter people who greet me as if they are a long lost friend. “Bruce Frassinelli! How the hell are you?” one person greeted me recently. I, on the other hand, hadn’t a clue as to who the person was.

In situations such as these, I am upfront and admit, “I’m sorry, but I can’t recall your name.”

Sometimes the person is startled by my admission. “It’s Jerry,” comes the unhelpful reply. My quizzical look cues the person to add a last name and, at times, a helpful description of a job or some other identifier. This usually triggers recognition and elicits from me a “Oh, right, Jerry. So sorry.”

Is this inability to recall names the onset of something ominous? Not at all, say researchers who have studied this phenomenon.

The simple explanation is that it is normal to forget from time to time. It is also normal to become somewhat more forgetful as we age.

Of course, the $64,000 question is how many memory lapses are too many? And is all of this just the normal progression of things, or is it a symptom of something more serious?

Healthy people can experience memory loss at any age, but unless it is extreme or goes on for a long time it is not considered an indicator of Alzheimer’s, dementia or other memory-afflicting diseases.

Experts point to these as some of the reasons why we experience memory problems:

We tend to forget facts or events over time. How many times do I have to consult Google to determine whether one of the movie or TV stars I followed during my childhood is still alive? Often I knew the answer once but forgot.

When we don’t pay close attention, we are likely to experience absentmindedness. Where did I put my keys? Why did I miss taking my medications at the prescribed time?

• How many times do we try to think of something, saying it is right on the tip of our tongue. You know the answer as well as your own name, but you just can’t think of it at the moment. An hour later, when doing something else, the answer comes to you.

Sometimes you remember part of a fact correctly but get part of it wrong. This is called misattribution.

On occasion, our memory will play tricks on us. We may have made up a story about something in our youth or, more likely, enhanced the details of an event in our favor. Over the years, we have told and retold the story so many times that we forget it is fiction and now portray it as fact. On occasion, we even convince ourselves, and fiction becomes fact even in our own minds.

So what to do about this?

Well, I have tried some of suggestions the experts have given me — repeat the name after being introduced, ask the person to spell out the name (especially if it is unusual) and associate the name with something familiar (Oliver from Oswego, George as in George Bush).

I am told that one of the main reasons I have trouble remembering names is that I am not focused or interested enough. So, shame on me.

It’s scant comfort to know that I am not alone. One of the most bizarre moments came a number of years ago when the president of a Central New York women’s organization was introducing me as its guest speaker.

She went into this five-minute litany on my background and raved about how wonderful it was of me to agree to speak to the group of about 40 club members. She concluded the introduction this way: “And now, ladies, I am so happy to introduce Mr. Bruce….ah, Mr. Bruce…Oh, what the hell is your name?”