The importance of knowing names – part 1

Lots of people are talking about how important it is to know a person’s name. When ‘knowing someone’s name ‘ was placed into a Google search, almost 15 million results were received. So using Icebreakers with the goal to learn someone’s name seems to be very important to explore.

a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language

So what are the physiological responses involved that provide the foundation on which we decided to use icebreakers? What effect does it have on us as individuals to have someone else know our name. There are three different components that will be reviewed in three posts:

  • What is my reaction to hearing my name?
  • What happens when you don’t know someone’s name?
  • How it feels to be able to call someone by their own name?

This post looks at the first question – What is my reaction to hearing my name? According to Holeckova and colleagues: “Hearing one’s own first name automatically elicits a robust electrophysiological response, even in conditions of reduced consciousness like sleep.”  Camody and Lewis found “evidence that hearing one’s own name has unique brain functioning activation specific to one’s own name in relation to the names of others”. These findings indicate that we have a strong physiological response to hearing our name. So our names would seem to be much more than a label to us.

a number of names

When we are in a crowd, “we turn towards a conversation when we hear our name (or some other highly relevant information) mentioned, even if this event takes place in a multi-source environment and in some distance”. (Wolvin, 2010) This is often referred to as the cocktail party effect.

And it isn’t just hearing our first name. Tacikowski & Nowicka conducting a study using the full name of the participants, found “that different kinds of self-related cues, such as self-name and self-face, activate a similar amount of attentional resources… We found that it is the meaning of the stimuli, i.e., the fact they denote us (‘It’s me!’)… that is crucial for the involvement of the attentional resources.”

So whether we hear our first name or our whole name, there are unique responses that occur in our brains. Our names are very important to us.


Carmody, D.P. & Lewis, M. ‘Brain activation when hearing one’s own and other’s names’ in  Brain Res. 2006 October 20; 1116(1): 153–158.

Holeckova I, Fischer C, Giard MH, Delpuech C, & Morlet D., ‘Brain responses to a subject’s own name uttered by a familiar voice‘, in Brain Res. 2006 Apr 12;PubMed1082(1):142-52.

Tacikowski, P. & Nowicka, A. ‘Allocation of attention to self-name and self-face: An ERP study‘, in, Biological Psychology 84 (2010) 318–324

Wolvin, Alvin D. (ed), (2010) Listening and Human Communication in the 21st Century, Wiley Blackwell, Malden, MA, U.S.A.

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