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Memory

Sorry, But I Didn’t Recognize You With Your Clothes On

You see someone who looks extremely familiar, yet you have no clue who they are.

Key points

  • We sometimes encounter somebody who looks extremely familiar, but we don’t know why.
  • This problem stems from bumping into a familiar person where you are not used to seeing them.
  • To resolve this memory blank, scan your places (school, church) and activities (teams, committees) for clues.

An Awkward Encounter

A while back, I was at the shopping mall and saw a man approaching who looked extremely familiar. His big smile signaled that he knew me. As he neared, I panicked and whispered to my wife, “I know this guy! I just don’t know who he is!”

Sure enough, he gave a cheery “hello” and we stopped to chat. During perfunctory pleasantries, my mind was racing to figure out who he was. Finally, he mentioned the doubles racquetball tournament last Friday, and it hit me. I shouted, “Fred, I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!” This turned several heads around us.

The Centrality of Context to Memory: The Butcher-on-the-Bus Experience

An important pathway to access memories is through context. Information gets automatically connected to the features present during the experience, whether it is the person (who told you), setting (where you learned it), time (when you heard about it), or activity (what you were doing). These seemingly unimportant aspects are stored in the memory and are often critical to successfully pulling the information back to mind.

I had always experienced Fred in a different context: activity, clothing, location, and time of day. Nothing matched when I bumped into him at the mall; my brain convulsed while trying to identify him because it could not find the right clues.

We call this the “butcher-on-the-bus” experience (Brown, 2020). You are positive that you know someone, but “blank out” when encountering them where you don’t expect them. My take on this was the athlete-in-the-mall.

Missing contexts may also be a challenge when you:

Smell a familiar perfume – Who wears it? Where do I know them from?

Hear a familiar tune – What’s the name of that song? Who sings it?

Hear a celebrity voice-over on a commercial – Who is that? What did they star in?

This Is Not a Simple Name Recall Problem

This temporary person identification amnesia differs from the more common problem of forgetting someone’s name. You know details about the individual (company, occupation, partner’s name) but just cannot pull up their name, at that moment.

When you experience a person identification blank-out (butcher-on-the-bus), you feel intense familiarity and nothing else. This feels spooky because our feeling of familiarity is nearly always backed up by information that supports this reaction. Sadly, the emotional jolt accompanying this memory void can hamper recall even more. Have you ever lost your train of thought standing in a group or forgotten your eloquent point after your boss yells at you in a meeting? Intense emotions often interfere with accessing a memory.

Dimensions of the Butcher-on-the-Bus Experience

You most likely had a butcher-on-the-bus moment; such experiences are essentially universal. In a survey of over four hundred people across all ages (18 to 89) nearly everyone (99 percent) could relate to it (Brown, 2020). The person’s identity does come to you about half the time (58 percent) while standing there with the person (Young, Hay, and Ellis, 1985).

When This Happens…

This person-identity blank-out can happen at a distance (you see them; they don’t see you) or up close (face-to-face). Far away, you may get lucky and dodge the awkward encounter. But if you make contact, it gets challenging. Here are a few suggestions:

Scan. Mentally search your familiar contexts: academic (classes), recreational (softball league), work (accounting, sales), religious (church choir), social (happy hour), exercise (gym). Our research indicates this is the best strategy for successful identification (Brown, 2020). If this fails, search for recent one-time events, like an ice cream social, political rally, Mardi Gras party, or sky diving adventure.

Stall and fish. Troll for a tidbit of information with generic questions:

“What have you been up to since we last talked?”

“Was it you I saw at the movie theater last Friday?”

“How is the job going?”

“Now, what were we discussing when I last saw you?”

It usually takes ten or more seconds to I.D. the person (Young, Hay, and Ellis, 1985), and stock inquiries may float you through this stretch.

Finesse, or fess up. If hopelessly stuck, finesse a graceful exit: “Nice talking with you, but I have to get to an appointment.” Alternatively, admit your struggle. The person probably won’t take offense and will likely be glad that you care – unless they are your brother. In that case, they might get a bit irritated.

False Alarm Familiarity

Sometimes strong familiarity may fool us. The person is not familiar but shares a feature with someone who is. Psychologist Anne Cleary describes such an experience. During her lecture, an audience member looked very familiar. Afterward, she discovered that they had never met but that his face closely resembled a celebrity's.

This false, or misattributed, familiarity has probably led you to ask someone, “You look so familiar; where have we met before?” They may reply that they have no clue who you are. A similar type of strong-cue confusion may underlie déjà vu. The present setting or activity feels overwhelmingly familiar, yet you are positive that you have never been here or done this before (Cleary and Brown, 2022). The current setting shares some elements with another one, but this resemblance is not obvious.

Some Final Words

Remember that there are many “butchers” in your life – people you consistently see in the same office, in the same clothes, or doing the same activity: Sarah in accounting, the UPS driver, the PA at your physician’s office, or your minister. These people could elicit a butcher-on-the-bus, or disconnected familiarity, experience if you run into them in the movie theater ticket line. While this problem is distressing, mentally browsing through your personal contexts may quickly resolve it. And this difficulty actually has an upside. You clearly have a rich and varied life and are no longer stuck at home because of a pandemic.

References

Brown, A. S. (2020). The butcher-on-the-bus phenomenon. In B. L. Schwartz & A. M. Cleary (Eds.), Quirks of memory: The study of odd phenomena in memory. NY: Routledge.

MacLeod, C. M. (2020). The butcher on the bus: A note on familiarity without recollection. History of Psychology, 23 (4), 383–387.

Young, A. W., Hay, D. C., & Ellis, A. W. (1985). The faces that launched a thousand slips: Everyday difficulties and errors in recognizing people. British Journal of Psychology, 76, 495–523.

Yovel, G., & Paller, K. A. (2004). The neural basis of the butcher-on-the-bus phenomenon: When a face seems familiar but is not remembered. NeuroImage, 21, 789-800.

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