Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Remembering Names: Secrets of Memory Experts

Remembering Names: Secrets of Memory Experts

When I try, I can learn names quickly and effectively. Even though I don't have a particularly good memory, I've developed skills and tricks: my secrets for learning names.

First, pay attention. If I want to remember someone's name, I make that person the focus of my attention. I look at the person, listen to the person, and ask questions. Focusing on that person, by the way, is a good way to make a positive first impression. I'm not perfect at this. Sometimes when I meet people, their names fly right past me without every slowing down. I turn hoping to find the name, but it has disappeared. This happens because I am thinking about what I want to say, looking for someone else to talk with, or planning what I am going to do next. When the name flies past without registering, I ask the person to repeat it. Then I work to make that person the focus of my attention.

Second, use the name, re-use it, and keep using it. When I meet someone, I use that person's name in my next conversational turn. I don't simply say, "It's nice to meet you." Instead I say, "It's nice to meet you, Helen." I continue using the name during our conversation. In some conversation turns, I may not say the name, but I think it - rehearsing the name internally. This is my basic trick for learning the names of students who visit me in my office. I start by getting the student's name and then use it throughout the conversation. I always end by thanking the student, by name, for visiting. In even a short conversation, I will use a student's name several times.

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Third, associate the name with important features. We are all better remembering features than names (the subject of my previous post: The Baker-baker paradox). Take advantage of what your memory does easily. When I meet people professionally, I use their names with their professional attributes. I ask about their jobs and use their names during that part of the conversation. In social contexts, I use a person's name in association with important personal attributes - common friends, interests, or hobbies. Since these attributes may lead me to encounter people again, associating their name with these features will aid retrieval at the critical moment.

I have seen other writers suggest associating a person's name with a prominent physical feature. For example, if you meet me, you might notice my large nose. Imagining my name written down my prominent nose associates my name with a feature and uses mental imagery. Use the things we remember well, faces and attributes, to help remember names.

Fourth, cheat. I use the best memory aid that has ever been invented. I feel guilty giving away my most important secret: I write names down. Since I know my memory is weak, I rely on external memory aids whenever possible. If I want to remember someone's name, I make a written record after meeting that person. I review my written notes before going to a place where I might encounter that person again. With students in my classes, I use the class roster after class for an additional rehearsal. I look at the roster before I go to class and try to imagine what each student looks like. In addition, my university has class photo rosters on the computer system. I study those photos. If I have a university-wide committee, I review the committee roster just before I attend the meeting. If I attend an off-campus meeting, I review who I will be seeing and look up internet photos if necessary. The written word is a wonderful method of aiding memory - especially if reviewed just before you need the memory. This special secret often makes me appear better at remembering names than I actually am. There's nothing like cheating - or as we cognitive sorts say, using an effective mnemonic device.

In summary, pay attention when you meet someone. Use that person's name immediately and frequently during that first conversation. Associate the name with important personal attributes of the individual - particularly those attributes that will lead to future encounters. Keep written records and use those records prior to times when you know you may encounter individuals again. Finally, no system is foolproof. I admit when I fail and politely ask people to remind me of their names. I've found people respect this and interpret as my sincere interest in learning and remembering their names.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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