Why you mix up the names of people you love

February 24, 2017 Providence Health Team

Your toddler David is making a mess in the kitchen. “Stop it, Duke,” you command.

Duke is your dog. Are you losing your mind?

No. This is nothing to worry about. Brain scientists say there’s a reason for misnaming, or as they put it, “word-finding failures.”

A study from researchers in North Carolina and Denmark found that misnaming is actually a very common mental mix-up. When your dad always calls you by the name of your brother – or your dog – it’s not because he’s becoming forgetful: It’s because he loves you both.

The study, “All my children: The roles of semantic category and phonetic similarity in the misnaming familiar individuals,” found misnaming is a harmless glitch in the way the brain organizes memories, rather than a mark of aging or increasing absent-mindedness.

In the brain, proper names are grouped together in specific categories, such as for family, friends or co-workers. When the brain seeks to fetch the name of a familiar person, it can grab the wrong name by mistake. People in the same relationship category can end up being called by each other's names— a kind of filing error, not a cognitive disorder.

In an especially tight category, like family members, scrambling names is probably more common. You may even hear family members addressed by the name of the family dog— because he is part of the family “file.”

“The misnaming of familiar individuals is driven by the relationship between the misnamer, misnamed, and named,” the authors wrote.

Testing the mind’s ability to recall

The research team conducted a series of five surveys of more than 1,700 people to document the various ways people mix up the names of their friends and family. They found that misnaming tends to occur in predictable patterns and that it can happen to anybody because of the way the brain functions.

Researchers also found that phonetic similarities can contribute to the confusion. Names that start or end with the same sound were more likely to be swapped out: Dave for Don, or Sherry for Sally, for example. And, when the middle vowel is the same, as with Don and Bob, the brain can seize upon an alternate “sound match.”

Interestingly while the family dog’s name is sometimes used mistakenly between relatives, they almost never use the name of the family cat.

“I’ll preface this by saying I have cats, and I love them,” said Samantha Deffler, a Duke student and lead author of the paper. “But our study does seem to add to evidence about the special relationship between people and dogs. Also, dogs will respond to their names much more than cats, so those names are used more often. Perhaps because of that, the dog’s name seems to become more integrated with people’s conceptions of their families.”

Has this happened to you? Maybe you’ll write a paper about it one day. Here’s how the authors introduced their report in Memory & Cognition:

“Each of the authors, though different in gender, age, and background, have been called a sibling’s name by an older family member who actually knew who we were; for three of us who owned a dog, we were even called the dog’s name. The last author, having experienced this seeming insult by loving parents as a child, now does it to his graduate students, and he only has two.”

Tell us your stories below.

And don’t worry: Nobody here knows your name.

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