The absolute number one question that I get from participants in the Memory and Aging Program that I facilitate is “Why do I keep forgetting peoples’ names, and how can I improve?”
It’s easy to see why names rise to the top of the memory complaints pile. First, names are often given to us in the heat of social interaction, when there are a hundred other things to be concerned with – like quickly sizing up your new conversational partner for their intent or trustworthiness, or thinking of your mutual social connections. And of course you’ll probably also need to devote some of whatever is left of your attention to the content of what they are saying immediately after they all-too-quickly tell you their name. Secondly, names are a hot-button memory issue because they can be embarrassing to forget. We’ve all had the experience of having someone address us by name, and drawing a blank when trying to respond with their name in return. Or worse yet, we may be certain we do know their name, only to be corrected once we confidently unleash our verbal error *gasp!*. With so much going on in social interaction, it’s a wonder that we walk away from any conversation with the names of the other participants firmly in our memories.
The best strategy for ensuring that you remember something, names included, is to not rely on your memory at all and to write it down. But of course we can’t always have a pen at the ready when we are introduced to new people – and doing so might be just as embarrassing as having forgotten their name anyway… which is exactly what you would have been trying to avoid in the first place.
A good solution here, is to learn to think in more memorable ways. When you are introduced to a new person, try to make an ‘association’ with their name rather than simply repeating it to yourself a time or two. So for example, if you are introduced to someone named Susan Partridge, you might take just a moment to think to yourself, “ah, Susan, just like my aunt Susan”. The interesting thing here though is that the sillier or more outlandish your association is, the more memorable it will be later. So for the last name Partridge, you might think of the bird. Put these ideas together in a silly or outlandish way, and you might conjure the image of your aunt Susan with a partridge. Or maybe even your aunt Susan under the proverbial partridge in a pear tree from the famous Christmas carol. This method of association works well because it memorably ties new information you want to be able to recall (e.g. Susan Partridge) with older information that you were not likely to forget (e.g. your aunt, and an age old Christmas song).
Even mnemonists (a kind of “memory athlete”) use this technique. Here’s a passage from Joshua Foer’s 2011 book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything – about his quest to improve his own memory by reporting on the US memory championships and it’s competitors:
Ed then explained to me his procedure for making a name memorable, which he had used in the competition to memorize the first and last names associated with ninety-nine different photographic head shots in the names-and-faces event. It was a technique he promised I could use to remember people's names at parties and meetings. “The trick is actually deceptively simple,” he said. “It is always to associate the sound of a person's name with something you can clearly imagine. It's all about creating a vivid image in your mind that anchors your visual memory of the person's face to a visual memory connected to the person's name. When you need to reach back and remember the person's name at some later date, the image you created will simply pop back into your mind… So, hmm, you said your name was Josh Foer, eh?” He raised an eyebrow and gave his chin a melodramatic stroke. “Well, I'd imagine you joshing me where we first met, outside the competition hall, and I'd imagine myself breaking into four pieces in response. Four/Foer, get it? That little image is more entertaining—to me, at least—than your mere name, and should stick nicely in the mind.”
One of the central points that Foer makes in his book bears repeating here. Memory strategies like this are simply tools that we can choose to use to help strengthen our ability to remember the things we want to remember. We all start with some basic ability to remember things, and we can choose to be intentional about improving through strategies like this, or not. We can either conjure visual images of our aunts in Christmas carols, or alternatively be perpetually left wondering what that nice lady’s name was from the get-together last week.
So give making associations a try to help your memory. Try it for names first, and then see what else you might be able to apply it to. Get creative. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different kinds of associations, and of course, keep in mind that like anything else this is a process that will get easier and more efficient with practice.