It is an embarrassing scenario for many in a social situation but British scientists have offered a potential explanation into why we forget people’s names but remember them hours later.

Neuroscientists found that memories in all animals can be recalled several hours after learning them despite being forgotten for brief periods of time after being formed.

While it is not fully understood why such lapses occur, it is thought to be a necessary part of the brain’s ability to consolidate long-term memories.

UniversityofSussexresearchers discovered that causing a disturbance during these memory lapses disrupts the process and appears to prevent the memories from being formed.

Their study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, may offer reasons why such a phenomenon has left many of us feeling red-faced and rude.

“Scientists have long wondered why the brain shows these memory lapses,” Dr Ildiko Kemenes, who led the study.

“Here we showed that lapses in memory coincide with periods when consolidation of memory is susceptible to disturbances from outside the memory network.

“Changes in the molecular pathways underlying consolidation are responsible for these periods of vulnerability.”

In their study, the researchers introduced snails to an unfamiliar substance during feeding so that the animals would learn to recognise it as food.

When they were fed later, scientists found the snails responded to the stimulus, with memory lapses after 30 minutes and two hours, before the memory became consolidated at about four hours.

But if the snail received another different stimulus during the memory-lapse periods, the memory consolidation became disrupted, it was discovered.

Dr Kemenes added: “Memory formation is an energy-consuming process. The brain would need to decide if it was worth expending energy for the consolidation of that particular memory.

“The brain has a restricted capacity to learn things and preventing some memory formation would be a way to avoid overload.”

The next stage of the study, titled Susceptibility of memory consolidation during lapse in recall, will investigate what happens to the brain during the memory disruption.