At the G8 conference this week President Obama kicked off his speech by thanking our Chancellor George Osborne’s for his; “Thanks Jeffrey,” he said and reinforced his blunder by referring to him as Jeffrey three times in the course of his talk. The President later admitted that he had somehow mixed up George with the black soul singer Jeffrey Osborne. Clearly the great mind of the President had simply muddled the given names because of the shared surname rather than any obvious similarity between the two men.George Osborne allegedly looked “put out” at the time but later laughed off the President’s gaffe.

Most of us at some time in our lives have had this problem with names, memory deserts us at the most inopportune moments; times when you need to introduce friends to each other you suddenly cannot for the life of you remember one of the appropriate names. Or you can believe for years that you know someone’s name only to discover with horror that you have been getting it wrong and good manners have prevented your error being corrected. Jeremy Vine recounted on his show about the time he conducted a lengthy interview with Billy Ocean in which Billy called Jeremy “Nick” for the duration. After it has happened a few times it becomes embarrassing to correct. I was once so convinced that a neighbour’s wife was called Pauline, I sent a Christmas card only to have one in return “from John and Shirley (Pauline?!).”  Jeremy Vine talked of the pitfalls of using word association  as a way of  remembering names after calling his Indian associate ‘Ricin’ for many months only to later learn he was actually called ‘Sarin.’

Memory experts at the University of Sussex have carried out research in to why we are apt to forget names;Scientists revealed that while memories can be recalled several hours after learning them, they are inaccessible to us for a period. Although it is not fully understood why such lapses happen, it is believed to be because they are a necessary part of the brain’s process to avoid overloading with information. Any disturbances during these memory lapses disrupt the process and stop memories being formed. One of the experts, Dr Ildiko Kemenes, said: ‘Scientists have long wondered why the brain shows these memory lapses. ‘Memory formation is an energy-consuming process.’The brain would need to decide if it was worth expending energy for the consolidation of that particular memory. ‘The brain has a restricted capacity to learn things and preventing some memory formation would be a way to avoid overload.’

Given that modern lives are increasingly hectic, and that most of us are constantly being bombarded with information from mobile phones, Blackberrys, computers, television and radio, is it any wonder that we have information overload with shortening attention and concentration spans and find it increasingly difficult to absorb any information and retain it for any length of time. Perhaps it is just a  case of simple arithmetic and if we lose a tenth of what is going on then that tenth will now be bigger as we have busier lives.

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