Well, researchers may not know how to help you out of those sticky situations, but they have discovered what area of your brain is to blame for the lack of recall.
Using a new technique that enhances the information gained from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, were able to pinpoint the exact areas of the brain used to learn and later recall people's names. Results of the study appear in the Jan. 24 issue of Science.
"We found that the main memory center -- the hippocampus -- is divided into different sub-regions," says study co-author Susan Bookheimer, an associate professor in the Behavioral Sciences and Brain Mapping Center at the UCLA School of Medicine.
Bookheimer says the researchers also discovered that one area of the hippocampus, called the cornu ammonis 3, is responsible for learning new associations (such as matching faces to names), while another area, the subiculum, is important when the time comes to retrieve that information. However, permanent storage doesn't happen in the hippocampus; it appears to be located in the prefrontal cortex.
Dr. Keith Siller, a neurologist at the New York University School of Medicine, says the process is similar to a computer downloading information and then storing it for easy retrieval. He says it's like the cornu ammonis 3 downloads the information, which is then stored in the prefrontal cortex. Siller likens the prefrontal cortex to a documents folder on the computer, and the subiculum acts as a computer shortcut, allowing easy retrieval of the information.
To see what was happening in the hippocampus, the researchers had to develop a new technique using fMRI. The scientists scanned the brains of 10 volunteers while they were learning new faces and names. These scans let researchers see which areas of the brain become active when a person is performing a particular task.
Because the hippocampus is small and rolled, researchers haven't been able to see much detail of the area with straightforward fMRI scans.
"The hippocampus is all rolled up (shaped like a jelly roll), so we found a way to mathematically 'unfold' the [fMRI of the] hippocampus," says Bookheimer. "Now, we have a technology to ask many different questions about memory, such as how disease affects different parts of the memory system and why it is hard to remember names as we get older."
She says researchers at UCLA are already using this technique to try to identify changes in the brains of people who are genetically at risk for Alzheimer's disease.
"Learning to associate names with faces is one of the more important aspects of our memory system, and one that fails as we get older, and most strongly in patients with certain diseases like Alzheimer's," Bookheimer says. "If we can see changes in the brain long before the disease begins, we may be able to institute preventative treatments at an earlier stage, perhaps delaying the onset of the disease."
"This fMRI technique is really incredible," Siller says. "It enabled these researchers to verify the complexity of the hippocampus."
However, he adds, "it's just one step in the process of understanding intelligence and memory."