By Dr. Antonio Rotondo
Let’s be honest. Who hasn’t forgotten
names at one point or another? Sometimes it can be embarrassing: You’re in a
meeting at work making introductions when the name of the person in the cubicle
across from you suddenly escapes you; or, as a candidate for the dream job
you’ve always wanted, you keep calling the chair of the search “Bob” when it’s
really “Steve.” Awkward.
Remembering names is an art form that many of us haven’t mastered.
With aging, that recall only gets harder. For a lot of us, learning and
retaining new names is like attempting origami … without directions … when your
hand is in a splint.
Can Be Hard to Remember and What Helps
I see these memory recall difficulties firsthand among patients
who come to me for neuropsychological testing of verbal and non-verbal, recall
abilities (among other neurological skills that we test for). I might read a
list of words and then invite the patient to repeat the list back to me; I
might do this exercise a couple of times to see how the patient is retaining
the information. Or, I might read a story twice to a patient and ask them to
retell the story in the same order of events in which it occurred.
In the course of these exercises, it quickly becomes clear that
good memory recall depends on a number of factors:
- First, attention. If you can’t pay attention
to the information that is being read–maybe because of an untreated diagnosis
of ADD or ADHD or because you drank way too much coffee that morning and can’t
stop fidgeting–you will struggle to encode the new data coming your way.
- Second, auditory processing abilities. You
need to be able to hear and process the story or list of words as they are
being read. If you can’t, your ability to encode the information will be
- Third, context cues. These can be especially
helpful to people who may be able to encode and store new information but have
difficulty retrieving it. For example, if I tell a story about a firefighter
and the patient can’t remember that the story is about a firefighter, I might
provide a cue, such as “A fire happened and someone put it out.” That context
cue triggers their recollection.
5 Tips for
Remembering Names, From an Expert in Neuropsychology
For as much as remembering names is an art form, then, it’s also a
skill that you can learn– meaning you can
get better at remembering names. All
it takes is a little practice, with attention to these five pointers:
- Repeat the name when you first hear it. Say you’re
at a party getting introduced to a new person. Mindfully repeat their name
aloud as soon as you hear it. With cognitive, auditory repetition, you’ll be
more likely to effectively encode and store that person’s name for a later
time. For example, you might repeat the name back to your new acquaintance at
least once or twice as follows: “Hey, John! It’s a pleasure to meet you, John!”
Paying close attention to that audible reinforcement can help you encode and
store “John” in your brain’s Rolodex.
- Notice any unique or especially memorable, visual
characteristics that describe the person you’ve just met (and that you can
associate with their name). Returning to John at the party, we would do
well in that moment to notice that his name is probably more forgettable
because it’s so common. (By contrast, if his name were Webster, we may have a
greater likelihood of remembering his name because it’s so unique.) However, if
we’re able to observe there and then that John is wearing a red bow tie and
glasses, these associations will greatly improve our chances of remembering John’s
name in the future.
- By way of further association, engage in some
cognitive and/or emotional elaboration. John’s visual characteristics may not
in themselves be very unique. He may not be wearing anything particularly
memorable, and there may be no physical characteristics that immediately stand
out to you. But John may be smiling a lot during your exchange, in which case,
you can make the mental note that “John is a happy guy who smiles a lot.” That emotional
cue can help you later when you want to retrieve John’s name in a different
- Use mnemonic devices. A mnemonic
device is really just another form of cognitive elaboration, but sometimes
putting the name you’ve just learned into a rhyme or alliterative phrase can
make it stick better. Maybe you discover that John comes from Jasper, Georgia.
Or maybe you know another John who comes from Jasper, Georgia. The alliterative
association “John from Jasper” may be all you need to successfully recall
John’s name in another context. Or, say you met John at a lawn party. Because “John”
and “lawn” rhyme, you now have more cognitive elaboration with which to
remember John’s name.
- Get plenty of sleep and exercise. Getting
plenty of sleep and exercise is critical to working memory and brain health. As
you age, these components of a healthy lifestyle arguably become only more
important. They can help keep brain fog at bay, making learning and storing new
Remembering names can be difficult for many of us, but it’s also a knack and a skill that can be learned. With a little bit of practice applying the above pointers, you can get better with names. Your brain will thank you for it. Your work and social life may, too.
Dr. Antonio Rotondo
is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in neuropsychology. He treats
patients with addiction and other mental disorders at FHE Health, a
Florida-based behavioral healthcare provider. Learn more about Neurorehabilitative
Services at FHE Health.
Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books–written by men–barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.