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.
Why Names 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 compromised.
- 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 situation.
- 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 names easier.
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.
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