Remembering a name

Photo by Andre Robillard

Sandra Shamas, a Canadian comedian and writer I saw perform several years ago, joked that the minute you hit midlife you lose all your nouns. She said she would be sitting at the table and all of a sudden have to say, “please pass the…the…the… white shaky stuff.”

Recently, walking through the store, I heard my name being called. I turned to see Greg, a friend of a friend and someone I haven’t seen for a while.

Photo by Clark Young

My brain furiously processed the connections: here’s how I know him, here’s where I last saw him, here’s our main friend in common. But I could not recall his name. Ugh, lost my nouns again. As we talked in the dairy aisle, my brain ran through permutations of possible names. As he mentioned his wife, Kate, suddenly a nickname came to mind – but still no name. As we said goodbye, I murmured his nickname feeling a little embarrassed to be so familiar but relieved to have something – anything – to use.

Photo by Erol Ahmed

Forgetting names is uncomfortable but as a communications professional, it’s sort of unforgivable. When I meet someone for the first time, I try to use his or her name several times in the conversation; I find that helps me to remember. But how do I keep these memories fresh? I put the question to Google, and found a grab bag of ways to build lasting memories from the start, as well as some long-term ways to sharpen my recall.

Memory tricks

Visualization – By creating a picture to connect you to the person’s name, you’ll have an easier time remembering it. For instance, to remember a Nicole who has dark hair, you might visualize ‘coal’ in her hair – perhaps with characters in hard hats to go with it. The wilder the better is what works.

Photo by Jessica Ruscello

Emotion – Emotions help you to lock down those memories. Jen Dzuira, says visualization is demeaning (think John and ‘the john’). Instead, summoning up a real emotional feeling about the other person works far better.

Elaboration – Make a connection between a name of someone and something else you know. For instance, if you meet a Justin, think about a more famous Justin –a Trudeau, perhaps.

Photo by Thought Catalog

Re-testing – After meeting someone, write their name down. The next day, remind yourself. Do it again in a week, and again in two weeks.

Attention – Stop multitasking. I’m super guilty here. Call it mindfulness, if you will, but it makes sense that your memory will be stronger if you fully engage when you’re speaking with someone. The guys at Asap SCIENCE think so.

If you really want to geek out on how to improve your memory muscle with the techniques above, there are a number of experts online. Here are three:

  1. RememberEverything – a blog providing tips on all things memory and learning.
  2. Master of Memory – a podcast that gives tips on memory techniques like mnemonics.
  3. Becoming Superhuman – a podcast featuring experts who have actually become World Memory Champions. Yes, it’s a thing.


Brain builders

Photo by Michal Parzuchowski

Brain games – It seems the Internet is full of them! Sharp Brains offers a number of brain boosting games and puzzles to exercise your noggin, like these, which focus on attention and working memory.

Juggling – Who knew clowns were among the greatest minds of our time? Researchers from the University of Regensburg, Germany found juggling leads to an increase in the density of our brain’s grey matter. The good news is any task that challenges you (like learning something new) will give you a boost.

Photo by John Towner

Exercise – Yep, hate to say it but there’s one more reason to get moving. According to the folks at Peak Fitness, regular moderate exercise helps to boost your brainpower and that is good for recall.

Diet – Apparently, science tells us there is at least one diet that is really good for our brains – the Mediterranean one. Leafy greens, fish, olive oil and red wine are chalk full of the good stuff that lubricates our mental machinery.

Photo by Alexander Possingham

Sleep – As a mom to three, there’s no surprise here. No question that my difficulty remembering is often tied to how much – or rather – how little sleep I’m getting. Sleep helps us to store our memories. Now, if only I can convince my kids that sleep is a priority….

Calm – While short-term stress can give you the focus to recall, long-term stress literally kills memory by attacking the neurons in your hippocampus. (I talked about the hippocampus in a previous post.) More than that, stress can actually prohibit a memory from being stored in the first place.

While my husband doubts I will become a grand master of memory anytime soon, the wide variety of online resources have armed me with tools to add to my memory arsenal. The next time I run into Greg, I’ll have something to thank him for.

Looking for more? Check out these great memory posts:

How to remember names

How to remember a person’s name

11 memory hacks to remember the names of everyone you meet

A scientifically proven trick for remembering someone’s name

9 easy ways to remember anyone’s name


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