Like most people, I find it incredibly annoying when I recognize a face but can't remember the name that goes with it. The problem only gets worse as we age. Research has found that approximately 85 percent of middle-aged and older adults share this frustrating memory challenge.
A very common reason we have trouble remembering people's names - sometimes only seconds after being introduced - is that we are not paying attention in the first place. Fortunately, for those of us who take solace in being "good with faces," there are many easy strategies to improve our ability for remembering names.
I find it helpful to repeat the person's name during an initial conversation, or to comment on how the person reminds me of someone else I know with the same name. If a person has a complicated name, I ask them to spell it - sometimes just visualizing an image of the name spelled out will fix it into my memory. If I repeat the name when saying good-bye, that also makes it easier to remember later. To get the information into our memory banks, we need to rehearse it to some extent.
But the most effective method for remembering names and faces uses three basic memory skills I call: LOOK, SNAP, CONNECT. First, make sure you really take the time to focus on the name (LOOK). Then, creates mental snapshots (SNAP), visual images of the name and the face. Finally, CONNECT the name snap with the face snap by creating additional images so you can easily retrieve the information later.
Here's how it works: to create a visual snapshot or SNAP for the face, pick out a facial feature that may be easy to remember. Look at the person's face and search for the most distinguishing feature, whether it is a small nose, large ears, unusual hairdo, or deep dimples. Often the first outstanding feature you notice is the easiest to recall later.
To create the name SNAP, note that all names can be placed into two groups: those that have meaning and invoke visual images, and those that don't. Names like Katz, Brooks, Carpenter, Bishop, Siegel, White, or Silver all have a meaning that can bring an image to mind. When I meet Mr. Siegel, I think of a sea gull, and I see a couple of cats playing together to help me remember Mrs. Katz. When I meet a Bill for the first time, I might see a dollar bill. A Democrat might instead first see our former president, Bill Clinton. Meeting Ms. Lincoln might make you think of a Lincoln Continental automobile, or the Lincoln Memorial.
Other names that have no immediate meaning may require additional mental effort to remember, but the names or the syllables and sounds within them can be associated to a substitute name or sound that does have meaning. By linking these substitute words together, you can create a visual image that works. For example, the name George Waters could be remembered through an image of a gorge with a stream of water rushing through it. The word or syllable substitutes do not need to be exact. Frank Kaufman could become a frankfurter being eaten by a coughing man. I sometimes see a famous person with the same name. So Angela Shirnberger becomes Angelina Jolie wearing shined shoes and eating a burger.
In the final step, you merely CONNECT, in your mind's eye, the name to the face by creating a mental image involving both of your visual snapshots: the SNAP for the distinguishing facial feature and the SNAP for the name. If Mrs. Beatty has prominent lips, her face snap might be her lips and her name snap might be Warren Beatty. CONNECT them by visualizing Warren Beatty kissing her on the lips (but don't tell Annette Bening). The images and substitute words don't have to be perfect - just close enough to jog your memory. The process of thinking up the images and making the connections will usually fix them into memory so you never have to forget a name or face again.
Dr. Gary Small is co-author with Gigi Vorgan of "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind," and author of "The Memory Bible." For more information, visit DrGarySmall.com.