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Memory Maintenance: How to Remember Names

What do you have trouble remembering the most? Where you left your keys? Where did you last place your cell phone? We would wager that one of the hardest things for you (and millions just like you) is remembering names.

Remembering names is difficult for individuals of any age. As a general rule, it becomes harder as we grow older, especially since your brain’s search engine, the frontal lobe, may not be working as efficiently as it once did.

But fear not! There is a strategy for remembering names, which we are going to share with you below.

Why We Fail To Remember Names

You just met someone at a party not five minutes ago and they are circling back towards you – but you can’t remember their name! Sound familiar? The most likely culprit was not focusing enough on the person and what they were saying. Distractions abound all around us – loud music, phones ringings, dishes clanging. Our brain is processing hundreds of bits of sensory input and information about our environment at any given moment. For most healthy individuals, failing to remember a name is due to lack of attention.

If you are a healthy older adult, the problem may lie in your ability to search efficiently for the name. The name might be stored in your long-term memory, but your frontal lobe is slower at processing the search request and finding it. Having the right cue or hint will often allow you to retrieve the name more quickly. Also, physical problems like hearing and vision loss may compound the problem with finding that person’s name.

Barring some brain disease, like Alzheimer’s, most people can improve their ability to retrieve names using this technique or strategy:

A Strategy for Remembering Names

Andrew E. Budson, M.D., professor of neurology at Boston University and author of Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory: What’s Normal, What’s Not, and What to Do About It, suggests you follow the following steps to help you access those names in your memory:

  • Step 1: First, you have to pay attention when someone is telling you their name. You can’t be focused on the delicious-looking hors d’oeuvres going by, looking at how nice her necklace looks on her dress, or thinking about what you are going to say next. You need to pay attention to her name! You can actually improve your ability to pay attention using techniques such as mindfulness.
  • Step 2: Next, repeat the name back to the person aloud. When they say, “Hi, I’m Victoria,” you say, “It’s nice to meet you, Victoria.” That simple act of processing the name and saying it aloud will really help you to remember it.
  • Step 3: Make an association between the person’s name and something that is meaningful to you, whether it be something public (like Queen Victoria) or something person (like my sister’s name is Victoria).
  • Step 4: Form a mental image between your association and the person in front of you. Imagine the Victoria in front of you wearing a crown, holding a scepter, and dressed like a queen. Or imagine your sister Victoria giving the Victoria you’ve just met a big hug or a peck on the cheek. Do these images seem silly? That’s good! The sillier the image the more likely you’ll remember it.
  • Step 5: Find something in the person’s appearance—their jewelry, clothing, face, hair, etc.—that will help you to remember their name. For names beginning with “V” like Victoria, look for a necklace or V-neck sweater and picture it as the first letter of their name. A pair of glasses held on their side looks like a “B.” The lower lip and chin can form a “D.” An ear can look like a “G.” Sometimes patterns on clothing can form letters or give you other associations with names. I once met a woman named Brooke who had a blue-and-white striped shirt that looked like many brooks flowing down her shirt.
  • Step 6: Lastly, say the name again, either in the conversation or to yourself, sometime in the next minute or so, then again 5 minutes later, and when part company to go get a drink. Say the name again as you’re driving home and again the next morning. Say it a week later, a month later, and six months later and you’ll remember that name for a very long time.

With a little bit of focus and practice, anyone can learn to remember names better. Try using the above memory technique for remembering names and see if your ability improves over time.