You’re not losing your mind, you just love them a lot
We’ve all done it. You’re trying to juggle a million things at once, like getting the kids ready for school or unloading the groceries while making lunch at the same time. You open your mouth to call for one of your kids, and the name of their sibling, a mashup of their names or even the dog’s name pops out of your mouth instead — even if they’re standing right in front of you. Turns out it’s not “mommy brain” that makes us mess up the names we worked so hard to pick out. According to science, the real reason we can’t keep our kids’ names straight is because we love them so much.
In an article publish in the journal Memory & Cognition, researchers affiliated with Duke University examined five studies that included over 1,700 participants to try and identify the factors that cause people to call others by the wrong name. While they did find that people are prone to confuse names that sound similar (like Mary and Carrie) that’s not the main reason why we misname people. So no, going with all “D” names for the kids isn’t why you keep calling your youngest daughter by your oldest son’s name. It’s how our brains store information that causes us to misspeak.
It has to do with the relationship between the person saying the name (you), the person you’re trying to name (your child who you love) and the person who’s wrong name you used (another child you love). Your brain stores information in something called a “semantic network,” which is like a filing cabinet in your brain. All of the people you love the most are in the same folder, so when you go to say the name of one of your kids, your brain sometimes reaches for another name on the list of People You Love The Most Instead (this also explains how the dog’s name sometimes pops out of your mouth).
This is why it’s always the name of your other child that pops out of your mouth and not a celebrity or someone else. As much as you claim to love your barista, you love your kids a million times more, so their name is stored in a different filing drawer in your brain.
“As you are preparing to produce the utterance, you’re activating not just their name, but competing names,” Neil Mulligan, a cognitive scientist at UNC Chapel Hill told NPR. “You flick through the names of all your other children, stored in the family folder, and sometimes these competing names win.”
Still don’t get it? Try thinking of the example the authors used to demonstrate misnaming in action: when Ross accidentally says Rachel’s name instead of Emily’s during his wedding vows on Friends.
Samantha Deffler, one of the authors of the article, says this misnaming phenomena happens to everyone, but there’s one group that seems to be especially susceptible. “Moms, especially moms,” Deffler explained to NPR. “Any mom I talked to says, ‘You know, I’ve definitely done this.’”