Why do we wake up when we hear our names?



I just fell asleep in class with the camera off and when the professor called my name to make sure my group was ready to present I immediately woke up to say that I was in the lecture and almost had a heart attack because missing this specific lecture is an automatic fail. I wanted to ask anyone as to why we wake up if someone calls our name even when we’ve been asleep for 10+ minutes, but don’t wake up when hearing other people’s names or the lecture content.

In: Biology

When you’re asleep you’re not 100% unconscious; you’re just asleep, but your are still recognizing some sensory input. Your mind has just set it to ‘low priority’ but if it gets a trigger that’s important your brain will wake you up.

Your brain stores different words in different ways depending on their meaning and importance. For example, swear words are stored in a totally different way and that’s part of what gives them their power in our speech. One such word that has extra importance is our name. Our brains are constantly on the lookout for our name because hearing it means we’re needed.

Also, when we’re asleep, our bodies are silently processing stuff still and absorbing information. That’s why you might wake up to a loud noise or someone nudging you.

Combine these two things and now you have a brain that will wake you up when your name is called.

I’m not a doctor but I believe it’s due to the Reticular Activating System (RAS). Its a bundle of nerves in your brain that is responsible for filtering information. A typical example of its function is hearing someone say your name in a noisy crowd. I believe it’s also like a watchdog when you sleep so you dont sleep through someone breaking into your house.

Your brain does still process sounds from your environment even while you’re sleeping. Obviously it would be detrimental to your sleep to awaken for every sound, so you’re able to “tune out” a lot of unnecessary stimuli. You’re able to recognize important sounds, though, like your own name or one of your children or pets in distress. How much you’re able to process and how fast you wake up will depend on the stage of sleep that you’re in.

There’s even some research that shows that when you’re sleeping in an unfamiliar environment, you “sleep with one eye open” by sleeping lighter and remaining more alert to more potential threats.

When you fall asleep, parts of your brain turn off or do tasks they normally don’t when you’re awake.

Some parts of your brain remain on for survival. These include a lot of brain near your spine, called the “cerebellum”. They handle automatic tasks like breathing and reflexes (like when you put your hands up to block fast objects near your eyes). Although most of your brain does shut off, the signals for most senses are located near the cerebellum and stay on even in sleep. They can trigger wake-up reflexes if one of your senses is giving unusual signals that don’t appear like normal sleeptime signals.

Some of those reflexes are triggered by noise and they wake you up if a noise meets a checklist that brains have evolved to recognize as *potential danger*. These include loud, sudden noises like thunder, or the voices of other people.

Brains are also very good at filtering out noise. If you have a good memory for dreams, you’ll notice that a lot of loud noises or arguments that don’t seem directly threatening will influence the dream you have. Putting these senses *inside* the dream seems to suppress wake-up reflexes, but I’m not too familiar with why that would be. Some people even hallucinate hearing people talking while falling asleep, which is probably when the brain starts to turn dreams on.

While asleep, the brain doesn’t need to have details about lectures or how your blankets feel. So it filters that data out and continues to rest.

Retired teacher here. Years ago a new boy moved into our school community. He was 10 years old. During a period of group work I shouted out to him several times to get his attention. Finally one of his friends told him Hey! the teacher wants you. I figured something was not quite right here. Later that week I had a chance to read his “File”. I learned that his father had passed away several years ago, cancer, and his mother had remarried. This little boy took his new father’s last name, but while he was at it he changed his first name as well. From that day on if I wanted to ask him something I made sure that I first had eye contact with him. The rest of the year was awesome, he made many new friends and became a welcome member of the community.

Now, I’m no doctor, but I believe a part of this also revolves around “The Cocktail Party Effect.” Basically, it’s that thing that makes you hear your name from across a crowded room at a cocktail party. Part of our brain is triggered by hearing our name, even if we don’t think we were listening for it.

Recommended reading for everyone that clicked on this thread: “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” by Dr. David Eagleman. Written in layman’s terms it breaks down how the division between conscious and subconscious actually works without nebulous analogies etc. Not an ad, I just really love the book and think you guys might enjoy.

Because for effectively your entire life you are trained by every other human around you that “xxxxx” set of syllables is the one to listen for. Evolution left us the ability to sleep, but we are still alert. Your brain doesn’t turn your ears “off” like it does with your eyes or legs (for most) in order to still listen for predators or children.

Even though we apes came far and progressed society that we are able to fall asleep in lecture our ape brains are still trained to listen for our “sound”, threats, and children.

Cocktail Party Phenomenon. Most people are conditioned early in life to respond to their own name through positive reinforcement (e.g. parents cooing an infant’s name, then being especially tender when the child reacts).

Your name might very well be the first word you ever truly understand, and is important simply because it is how you identify yourself. This wasn’t always the case. Prior to germ theory, infant mortality rates were so high that it was not uncommon for a child to be 4-5 years old before being christened with a name. My own great grandfather named himself Abraham Lincoln McKenzie, after the Great Emancipator when his family emigrated to the USA in the mid-19th century. He was five at the time and (correctly) thought Lincoln was the cat’s pajamas.

At any rate, our platonic senses are at all times bombarded by stimuli that is largely irrelevant b-roll stock information. Our conscious mind tends to tune almost all of it out, but it does not go unnoticed by our subconscious mind (apologies if I am using outdated nomenclature). But certain stimuli sponsor greater alertness, because they hold a greater position of importance (like seeing a spider in your periphery).

In a cocktail party setting, the din of voices becomes background to the conversation you are engaged in. But hearing your name from across the room immediately heightens your awareness, because it is the most primitive and important word you know.

Luckily, enough of your ‘ancestors’ were killed while they slept that the ones that survived passed along a heightened sleeping situational awareness.

Similar to the “cocktail effect” where your brain is able to pick up the sound of your name in a party if some one says it. You normally can’t hear their conversations but will hear your name

In psychology, this is called the Cocktail Party Effect because, simply, it allows you to hear your name in a crowded room of people. Your brain is constantly receiving auditory input, but many things heard are deemed unimportant by the brain, so those things are cast aside. Your name is //not// one of those things. When your brain hears your name, it’s recognizes that thids is important and necessary to be aware of, so it quickly triggers a response. Other examples of auditory sounds that are deemed important by the brain are the word “fire”, the sound of squealing tires, and such.

It even works with visual bright lights. I work in EMS and our CADs (computers in the ambo) would turn red until we tap the screen to acknowledge the call. I worked nights so the screen would basically light up the entire front of the truck. I’ve worked mornings for over a year and we’re even using different CADs and my brain still recognizes it. Left the TV on and the scene had a lot of red and I woke up thinking I had a call. My wife’s reaction was pretty funny but it’s still frustrating to deal with lol

As a side note, falling asleep during an “automatic fail if you fall asleep” lesson must mean you’re really tired!


In the brain it’s called RAS reticular activating system. The brain never rests or goes off it’s a goddamn supercomputer Nonetheless, the RAS It is the running monitor of what’s going on while the body rests. When awake we are aware of our surroundings and dangers but when the body is “off” and the supercomputer is storing information and opening space for new information something has to keep getting the job done. It’s why we don’t roll off the bed our entire life or what alerts you if a lion was in your room. The security camera is always on and information is always under review

Is it possible to learn this power? I sleep through everything

I didn’t use my nickname in Uni. So, when a guy called me by that, I recognized that someone calling me after 3-4 times. Prolly people use their name as some kind of trigger word.

Better yet, why do we wake up exactly on our bus stop?