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So, You're Not Losing Your Mind When You Mix Up the Kids' Names

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One of my least favorite childhood memories is that of my mother accidently calling me by my brother's name—a reoccurring blunder that was blamed on old age. (She was in her twenties.) But then I noticed something peculiar: Mom wasn't the ONLY ONE in the family who couldn't get our names right.

Now—thanks, science!—we know why.

In a recent study of 1,700 participants, researchers figured out key factors in this misnaming phenomenon. Phonics were to blame for some of it, but the majority of mix-ups were due to something entirely different and often as a result of being tired, frustrated or angry.

According to an article published in the journal Memory & Cognition, mixing up names has nothing at all to do with memory loss or old age. Rather, it's because of the way the brain categorizes information—primarily as it relates to those we love.


Think of your brain as a poorly catalogued filing cabinet where you store your most treasured thoughts. Believe it or not, this is an actual thing that scientists refer to as the “semantic network" and, surprisingly, moms aren't the only ones using them for storage.

Everyone has memories. However, not all of us are proficient when it comes to organizational skills. When filing, we tend to attach the names of our loved ones with each memory and smash them together into one ginormously vague folder that we can whip out whenever needed. This might explain how a mother can be staring her son in the eye while calling him by his sister's name and vice versa.

But what about the rest of the world? What happens to the memories of those who we don't hold dear?

Turns out, the reason we rarely mix-ups the names of our acquaintances is because they have their own drawer (in a much smaller section—possibly in a faraway basement or attic).

“Overall," the study concludes, "the misnaming of familiar individuals is driven by the relationship between the misnamer, misnamed and named.” In other words, if shit happens, it's probably going to happen to you and everyone you love because the closer you become, the more likely you are to screw up their name—and this includes one slightly insulting (or is it sweet?) misnaming. Several participants in the study reported that they frequently call their family members by the name of their dog.

"I'll preface this by saying I have cats and I love them. But our study does seem to add to evidence about the special relationship between people and dogs,” says Samantha Deffler, a PhD student at Duke.

So, what does this mean for moms?

It means you're not old or showing early signs of dementia and that you shouldn't stress whenever you slip up and accidently scream the dog's name when calling your child to dinner. Instead, tell them to consider it a compliment because if you didn't truly love them, you'd probably say something a whole lot worse.

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