What’s in a Name?
Published on: October 5, 2011
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  • WigWag

    What a lovely essay. One of the things I find so remarkable about Professor Berger’s posts is that so many of them have a tendency to haunt the reader long after the computer is turned off. I often find myself reflecting on something he has remarked on in his blog, days and sometimes even weeks after I originally read it.

    I don’t know if Professor Berger is aware of it or not, but Freud was very interested in “names” especially in the process by which people forget the names of famous personages and even people that they know intimately. He was particularly fascinated by the phenomenon where you have a name on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t quite place it.

    In the “Psychopathology of Everyday Life” (1901), Freud devotes the first chapter to the subject of “Forgetting Proper Names.”

    That chapter (in translation) can be found here,


    As far as I can understand it, Freud believed that forgetting a name is a result of repression and that the forgotten name inhabits the preconscious until it is recalled to consciousness, usually through the mechanism of displacement.

    Neurobiologists have been investigating the brain regions involved with recognizing names since at least the early 1980s; in just the past few years, new imaging technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) have enabled scientists to make huge strides in the understanding of how proper names are a tool that the brain uses to distinguish identity.

    Interestingly the neural regions designed to recognize proper names are closely related to the neural regions involved with face recognition. To be more precise, there are separate brain regions for proper name recognition and face recognition but the signals from both regions converge on common neural circuits. The most relevant brain regions include the right lingual and bilateral fusiform gyri. Surprisingly, there appear to be different brain regions involved with the recognition of famous names and faces, e.g. President Obama, and familiar names and faces, e.g. a spouse, family member, friend, neighbor or co-worker. The left temporoparietal regions seem to be particularly important for recognizing the names and faces of “celebrities.”

    Any neurologist can tell you how devastating it is for patients who have strokes in the fusiform gyrus and develop terrible difficulty remembering the names of those closest to them or even recognizing their faces. It is less devastating but still very strange when patients have strokes in the temporoparietal regions and can still recognize their loved ones just fine but can’t for the life of them recognize the name of the President, or Oprah Winfrey or Brad Pitt.

    For a technical but somewhat understandable review of the subject, this article from the journal “Brain” might be informative.


    While Professor Berger might not be able to expound on Freud’s insight into forgetting names and while the neurobiology of name recognition may be outside of his area of expertise, perhaps someday he will share with his loyal readers his insights into the proclivity of human beings to articulate the names of the deity.

    It seems that the very early Israelites obsessed about the proper name of G-d and Moses specifically asked the deity by what name he wanted to be called. I think it’s fair to say that the Tetragrammaton has never been considered a particularly satisfactory answer as evidenced by the numerous other “names” for G-d mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

    If the core of religion is the belief that our individual identities as captured by our names will be forever recognized and remembered, what is it that motivates so many religious traditions to ponder so deeply by what name the deity should be identified?

    All of this puts me in mind of that poor scrawny gentlemen from La Mancha with the surname of Quexada. Whether we call him Don Quixote or the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, he is the perfect metaphor for human-kind. His quest was for his name to become immortal through his deeds.
    As for all of us, his quest was futile.

    It seems to me that the person who may have figured out better than anyone else how to reconcile the insignificance of any particular human life when measured against the enormity of the cosmos was Lucretius.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    It is ironic that the Jewish word for God – “Yahweh” – is often interpreted to mean the god for whom there is “no name.”

  • Anthony

    “The core of religion is the belief that the universe recognizes and will forever remember every unique identity.” …the temporal avoidance of oblivion – the significance of human naming via religious veneration/ritual – is evidenced by humanity’s compelling nature to name itself (human desire to be remembered in some manner).

  • Walter Rowe

    A very thoughtful essay. However, I would like to correct the claim that the Vietnam Memorial was the first to list the names of individual service members who had been killed in action or died of wounds. I have visited the Cambridge American Cemetery at Mattingly near Cambridge where there is a wall with over 5,000 names of American military personnel who died in operations based on the British Isles but whose remains were not recovered. I have also seen a number of Civil War memorials on which the names of the dead are listed.

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  • Jim.

    What a useless essay. Worse than useless.

    For one, it cites as evidence that what is not true: Judaic beliefs have by no means always accepted permanence of the soul or bodily resurrection; the Sadducees in particular rejected both outright and believed instead in oblivion.

    For another, I’m not certain how any believing Christian (of any sort) can cite anything other than the truth of the existence of God and His workings in the world, along with the God-given human faculty for understanding religion and the God-given urge to seek Him, as the basis for religion. Either you start from that faith or you don’t — and this article doesn’t.

    Berger, I would advise you to revise your decision not to use this blog to propagate your beliefs. Do you or do you not believe that faith is a pearl of great price, worth trading everything in the world — including praise for mental wanderings like this essay — in exchange? Do you believe that offering people excuses not to believe (“Oh, the wish to be remembered, that’s all this religion stuff is”) could possibly be more important than guiding people to true faith?

    Better to simply point out that humans wish to be remembered, and leave religion out of it entirely.

    Best to point out that this desire, along with all our other best desires, are fulfilled in Christ.

  • James

    many thanks for a lovely piece

  • Howard

    The crux of the problem is to separate human reality from physical reality or nature. Religion, and this includes belief in immortality or resurrection, makes the world a more human one, that remembers all of us, forever. Without human reality, or culture, we’d be defenseless against reality- although both are inseparable for humans, there are clear boundaries.
    I hope my comment is helpful

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