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The Shopaholic BeaverWhat...s Your Name Again?

By Elizabeth Zakszewski

Those of you who are returning students may remember a few columns I wrote about shopping, for such essentials as laptop bags and formal dresses (which are occasionally direly needed!). I have since managed to graduate successfully with that coveted MIT degree, and as a result … I’m now broke. Yup, you may have guessed, this means I did not get a lucrative job in the biotech industry; I have instead entered the world of grad school.

I may be several states away now, but the one thing I’ve been forced to shop for in the last couple of weeks is probably something that you brand new beavers, both first-year grad students and freshmen alike, have also been on the market for: new friends.

This commodity may not cost any money or require a trip to the mall, but it can be just as difficult to acquire. You may have been the most popular nerd in your high school, or have a dear fianc (e) who is still an undergrad at your alma mater, but you still have to find other humans who are spatially closer to you. There’s a chance you may plan to spend all your time at a computer and never see the light of day, but more than likely you’ll have to interact with your classmates, labmates, and dormmates, find study groups, and meet people to hang out with on weekends. There’s a plethora of places to meet tons of, so it really shouldn’t be that hard. If you could only remember their names.

Now, I know I’m not the only person plagued by this problem, but for the sake of not insulting any readers, I’ll act as though I am. When I meet someone new, the very first thing I’ll find out about her is the name. That’s also, almost always, the first thing I’ll forget. Granted, I could probably tell you many other facts about her, such as her major, where she’s from, or perhaps even her favorite breakfast cereal. But see, these are all things I learn as I continue talking to a person and get to know him. The name, on the other hand, is usually recited while meeting a small circle of new people standing around, each saying his name in quick succession, while I have no other reference to associate with each person except his face. And when meeting people this way, I’m lucky if I can remember any names at all at the end of the day.

It’s not just in large groups either. The other day I had an evening class, and upon asking a classmate if he knew how late the No. 2 bus ran, was offered a ride back to my apartment. I said thanks and we exchanged names, but by the time we’d walked to his car, I’d forgotten. This is embarrassing; you can’t ask a person to tell you his name again two minutes after meeting him, especially if he’s giving you a ride home. Now in class I have to address him indirectly, and hope at some point I’ll hear someone else address him by name.

I’ve been trying to find some cause for this phenomenon besides my own stupidity in the area of human interaction. Recently a Harvard group has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to research a phenomenon called prosopagnosia in which some people are unable to recognize faces, even those of their loved ones and people they see every day ( for more info). I had no idea such a condition existed. Perhaps my inability to match people’s names to their faces is a form of a similar, more common, and much milder brain disorder. Conveniently enough, my grad research is in a lab that does fMRI all the time. Maybe I can get a co-worker to help me find a cure! Except, I think they’re all currently busy studying autism, Alzheimer’s, cognitive disability in children, and other important stuff like that.

I guess in the meantime I’ll just have to learn to live with my little “disability”. But I leave with a message to first-years and seasoned beavers who are lucky enough to be free of this problem. Help us out! Create a more “accessible” environment by having patience, addressing people by name whenever you can while in a group, even by writing your (first) name large on papers so one can discreetly peek over your shoulder at it in class. (Yeah, I’ve developed some, uh, interesting techniques in my day). It’s an awkward process, meeting new people, but it’s even more so for those of us whose minds have an all-too-fast refresh rate when it comes to names. Trust me, many of us will be inwardly thanking you, which may help you make better friends more quickly!