How to Never Forget the Name of Someone You Know: The Science of Memory

4.4K Flares Filament.io Made with Flare More Info'> 4.4K Flares ×

memoryHow would you like to be able to recall the name of a client or associate you just met?

How would you like to go to the bank and not fumble for your account number every stinking time?

Everyday scenarios like these are classic examples of our need for memorization. The function of memory has so many more applications, too—public speaking, schoolwork, studying, research, the list goes on and on. Memorizing is a key function in so many areas. Imagine if we could be better at it.

Would you believe that memorization is not an innate ability but rather a learned skill? Approaching the topic from this paradigm changes everything.

You can learn how to memorize.

You can become a memory expert by application and sheer force.

You have the power to memorize anything and everything.

How our brain memorizes things

Before we get to the memorization techniques, first a science lesson on how the brain stores memories.

We’ve talked about the undervalued importance of sleep and creativity and productivity before, so you likely know that the brain is a complicated, beautiful system of working parts. Two of those working parts—the neurons and the synapses—are flexed during the memory-creating process.

Neurons are the parts of the brain that send and receive electrical signals. Synapses are the roads that connect them.

transmitter-1

When memories are recalled, a series of neurons sends signals throughout the brain, creating a sequence that represents the memory. This pathway has been tested by scientists who can send electrical shocks into the brain, masquerading as these initial neuron signals, that can initiate a memory sequence.

The stronger the synapse, the greater chance that a memory can be recalled.

Consistent use of synapses often creates stronger connections, similar to exercising. So, say, recalling your old apartment number or childhood home phone is easier than a bank account number because an address or phone gets used more often. Weak signals—i.e., bank-account signals—lack the ability to create the cascade of neurons essential to initiating a memory.

The problem with memory today

One of the leading voices on memorization is Joshua Foer, a journalist by trade who trained himself in one year’s time to become a memorization national champion (Foer’s exploits are documented in the book Moonwalking with Einstein). His perspective on the topic of memory points to an interesting, 21st century problem: Externalizing vs. Internalizing.

Technologies (iPhones, software, etc.) have made our modern world possible, but they’ve also changed us. They’ve changed us culturally, and I would argue that they’ve changed us cognitively. Having little need to remember anymore, it sometimes seems as if we’ve forgotten how.

With so many apps and tools at our disposal, memorization has transferred from a purely mental exercise to a tangibly outward endeavor.

(Foer is not quite the first to share this sentiment. Socrates was sour on writing because he feared it would weaken memory.)

3 techniques to become a better memorizer

Construct a Memory Palace

The ancient Greeks and Romans did not have the luxury of an iPhone or Evernote. When their scholars and orators remembered something, they did so the old-fashioned way: mentally.

The common technique of the time was a Memory Palace, also known as the “method of loci,” also known as “mental mapping.”

The technique works like this:

  • Visualize a familiar space in your life, i.e. your house or your workplace.
  • Find five rooms or areas in this space.
  • Choose five large items in each room to serve as “files” for your memorizing.
  • Assign each of these five large items a number, beginning with one and going room to room in ascending order. For instance, in your office, your desk may be 1, your office chair 2, your bookcase 3, your whiteboard 4, and your door 5. In the break room, begin with the break room table at 6, the sink as 7, etc., etc. Number as many items in as many rooms as you wish, and keep in mind that you can always add more items and rooms later. It is helpful to number the items in an orderly way as they flow in the room.

Memory Palace
At this point, your Palace is constructed. Now, let’s fill it.

  • Picture what it is you want to remember.
  • Associate this memory with an item in a room.

Let’s say you want to commit to memory each of the 12 teams in the Pac-12 football conference (to impress your boss, a Cal grad). Based on the above Memory Palace that I constructed in the workplace, the list might look something like this:

  • A wildcat is chewing on my desk (Arizona)
  • The devil is napping on my office chair (Arizona State)
  • The giant bear is pawing at Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink in my bookcase (Cal)
  • A buffalo is drawing caricatures of me on my whiteboard (Colorado)
  • A duck is laying eggs on my door jamb (Oregon)
  • A beaver is chewing off the legs of the break-room table (Oregon State)
  • Someone stuffed a tree down the garbage disposal in the sink (Stanford)
  • … (and so on and so forth for UCLA, USC, Utah, Washington, and Washington State)

Memory Palace, version 2

The visualization is important. The more vivid these scenes appear in your imagination, the more likely it is that you will recall them. Joshua Foer, the memorization champion, found that visceral, lewd, or bizarre imagery often worked best. This is called the Von Restorff effect.

Create a Peg System

An ideal technique for memorizing lists, similar to the scientific method of saying “no”, the peg system functions in a similar way to the memory palace: Create an association between what you want to memorize and what your mind already knows.

To use the peg system, you assign words to a list of numbers, creating a mental image for each “peg.” Then, you can attach what you wish to memorize to these pre-memorized pegs, creating a vivid connection in your mind.

The initial pegs can be created with anything. Common starting points are words that rhyme with each number or shape corresponding to the shape of each number. Here’s a rhyming example for one through ten:

1 = sun

2 = shoe

3 = bee

4 = spore

5 = jive

6 = ticks

7 = heaven

8 = grate

9 = wine

10 = hen

Once you commit your pegs to memory, then you can begin associating your to-be-memorized lists. Let’s say, for instance, that you need to memorize a shopping list. Your list might look like this:

  • Bananas: A banana-shaped sun
  • Toothpaste: A shoe full of toothpaste
  • Birthday card for mom:  A bee writing a sweet message in a greeting card

Memorize verbatim text

The above techniques work great for memorizing individual items. But what if you have a chunk of text you want to commit to memory? You can try a Memory Palace of paragraphs or a Peg System of key points, but here’s an even better option: the first-letter text method.

The method is not a visual one, like the methods listed above. The key to the first-letter text method is good, old-fashioned hard work:

Practice recalling, not repeating: This is the crucial concept of any type of memorization. The act of reading something you want to memorize fires different connections than the act of recalling. This is how you learn to memorize–your practice recalling, not repeating.

Recalling vs. repeating might sound like semantics, but the distinction is notable. If you want to memorize a large chunk of text, you are better off recalling it within your mind than reading it over and over on paper. This is how the first-letter method functions. Take the first letter from each word in your chosen text. This becomes your study guide. Let’s use a couple paragraphs from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as an example.

Martin Luther King speech

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

And here’s what it looks like with the first-letter text method (Productivity501 has a helpful tool on their website).

I h a d t m f l c w o d l i a n w t w n b j b t c o t s b b t c o t c.

I h a d t o d e v s b e, a e h a m s b m l, t r p w b m p, a t c p w b m s; “a t g o t L s b r a a f s s i t.”

Now, instead of reading the text verbatim, you are recalling the text. Your brain is exercising its synapses in a way that will lead to better memorization. Reading through those first letters, you may find yourself recalling bits and pieces from the full text. Good. Great! The more practice, the easier it gets.

Other notable methods

  • Psychology research has gone into the theory of mood memory: If you want to remember something, get back to the mood you were in when you experienced it.
  • The Link System works in a similar way to the Peg System, albeit without the numerical order. Say you need to memorize a list of arbitrary terms—a dog, a cake, a house, the rain. With the link system, you visualize an interaction between each consecutive item, e.g. a dog eating a cake, a cake filling a house, a rainstorm of houses.
  • Ron White, a former memorization national champion, has an intriguing method for recalling numbers. He assigns each friend a number, and he needs to memorize a new number, he simply pictures his friends in a particular order.
  • Associating a name with a personality trait or visual cue is an effective method. The Office‘s Michael Scott took this to a famously insulting extreme.
  • Ben Pridmore, a World Memory Champion, once memorized a deck of cards in 24 seconds. His Pridmore technique, documented here, is quite extensive.

(Aside: What does it take to be a Grand Master of Memory? You must memorize the order of 10 decks of cards in 60 minutes, memorize 1,000 random digits in 60 minutes, and memorize the order of one deck of cards in less than two minutes.)

What works for you?

Memorization—on a small scale in the work place or a large scale at the national championships—often comes back to the same foundation of visualizing, associating, and recalling. Some of the above methods might work wonders for you, or perhaps you have muddled together your own system that you swear by. I have been wanting to memorize a famous speech for some time, and I plan on giving the first-letter text method a go. How about you?

  • http://thejakejordan.com/ baldjake

    Great stuff. I had not heard of a couple of these methods. I’ve had success with the palace method myself!

    • http://www.obnug.com Kevan

      Great to hear it, jake! I’m working on the first-letter text method for the first time.

  • http://www.razorsocial.com/ Ian Cleary

    I use association to remember names and it works great. Think of someone famous that has the same name and has a similar feature, think of an attribute they have that is very similar to someone you know etc etc. The association works a treat. You can easily remember the names of a large group of people.

  • http://pocbooks.com/ James Lynch Jr.

    I read a book years ago on this subject and lost it. I am very happy to see you put in this article known points and more! – Regards James

  • http://www.seoimr.com/ Steve Sharp

    Years ago i learned a method in a Dale Carnegie class. Something similar mapping out things to associate with in your mind. It was a lot of work just remembering what to remember to tie the association to in the first place. The room method sounds like an easier way.

  • Knowinger

    I like a method of visualisation. You just try to convert boring information into a picture. Most information we consume every day is abstract and that is why it is difficult for our brain to latch onto it. For example you have an appointment with your tax man today at 3 Bridge Street. Try and convert the abstract information into a familiar image. You might want to imagine three bridges or a three-column bridge to remember the address. Later in the day when it comes to going to the location, your mind will recall the information faster and you won’t even have to take out your phone and look it up again.

  • karim kanji

    One of the ways I use to remember someone’s name is to go through the alphabet from a -> z. Works often.

    • chaddrobinson

      as Bernard implied I didn’t know that a single mom
      can get paid $5108 in 4 weeks on the internet. i thought about this M­A­X­52.c­o­m

  • Ryan Knell
  • http://terakristen.com/ Tera Kristen

    I remember learning about the power of context when trying to recall information.

    There were 3 groups of students studying for a test. One group was drunk, one group has smoked marijuana and one group was a control. Then each group was tested on what they had studied, except now each group was split into two: one who wrote the test in the same condition they had studied and one who wrote the test sober. For example, half of the drunk group wrote the test sober and half of the drunk group wrote the test while drunk.

    Oddly enough, the ones who studied drunk performed better on the test while drunk, compared to drunk studiers who wrote the test sober. Needless to say, the group who studied and wrote the test sober had the highest scores.

    So, as often as possible, encode information in your brain in the same way that you plan on retrieving it (i.e. study in a quiet room for an exam).

    • Belle

      Wow, that’s really interesting, Tera! Thanks for sharing – I’ll definitely keep that in mind.

    • Lauren Cheney

      Yes, very interesting. I definitely want to check that study out!

  • http://www.andydesoto.com/ Andy DeSoto

    Thanks for bringing some of these things to light. A question, though: Need you bother with the pseudo-neuroscience to teach these helpful mnemonic methods?

    • http://www.obnug.com Kevan

      Good point, Andy. The neuroscience was more for background info and not essential to implementing any of these memory strategies. Consider it an FYI.

      • http://www.andydesoto.com/ Andy DeSoto

        I appreciate the reply. As someone who does behavioral research only (i.e., not neuroscience) on this kind of stuff, I have to do my job and leave that note where I can!

  • http://iqtell.com/ Team IQTELL

    The memory palace sounds interesting Kevan, going to try that one.

    I use a lot the spaced repetition technique. It’s something I picked up while learning French. You expose yourself to information over a long period of time and your brain remembers that information due to an effect called the spacing effect.

    Its a psychological phenomenon that ensures we remember information which is presented to us through repeated long termed spaced studying.

    Haim.

  • http://www.crowdstudio.in/ Jaseem TS

    Oh, this post comes as a life saviour. I am very bad at recalling names of people I met and now I’m practising the Palace method! Thank you so much.

    • http://www.obnug.com Kevan

      Glad to help, Jaseem! Thanks.

  • Joan Advincula

    I think this falls in the visualization category but, whenever I need to memorize for an exam, I try to remember which part of the page a concept is and, when I need to recall them, I recall that part and try and imagine what I read on that part of the page. I wonder if that was clear enough but that’s how it works for me.

  • Thuraiappah

    Yoga enhances memory power

  • accessheating

    Great article!

  • Tim Ottinger

    I wish this would work for me, but it is so intentional and involved that by the time I get the name of the first person I’ve been introduced to, I have lost the names of the eight other people I’m being introduced to… and I don’t know which one I’ll want to remember when the hour is up.

    I think there are great tricks for memorizing a 12-digit number. But I don’t know that any of them work for memorizing a list of 100 12 digit numbers each week, and recalling them a year later.

    Memory is indeed the residue of thought, and maybe most of the tricks work for “normal” people (non-consultants with average or better memories, who maybe meet a dozen new people in a few months).

    I wonder what tricks work when you meet dozens of new people every week or a handful every day, and need to recall them for 7 or 8 years with minimal contact.

  • http://www.carloborja.com/ Carlo Borja

    Whenever I memorize speeches, the only technique I remember using is “internalization.”

    I’m not even sure if that is the correct term. But, I put myself in the shoes of the speaker. I visualize myself as the one saying it at that exact time.

    It takes a lot of time to understand exactly the words written in there. But, this works best for me.

    Aside from that, keywords also help. Just one important keyword (or topic) per paragraph that will help me remember the whole.