"Hey so Jane, I mean Janine..." "It's actually Jones." Photo: Alexis Brown / alexisrbrown.com
“Hey so Jane, I mean Janine…” “It’s actually Jones.” Photo: Alexis Brown / alexisrbrown.com

Why it’s so hard to remember names

Nelson Dellis is the current record holder in the names and faces event of the USA Memory Competition. Given 15 minutes and a packet of headshots, Dellis was able to remember the names of 193 complete strangers during his 2014 record setting performance.

For the majority of us, Dellis’s incredible memory may seem enviable. We often find ourselves in a panic trying to resurrect the names of former classmates or new clients.

Why do our memories fail us when it comes to name recall? And what can we do to improve this practical skill?

Saying a person’s name triggers emotional response unlike another other word

Our names play a large role in our personal and public identities. They are a sacred, distinctive component of our person. In his time-tested bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie impresses upon his readers, “The average person is more interested in their own name than in all the other names in the world put together.”

Experts go as far as claiming that our names have the power to shape our personality, self-esteem, and career aspirations. A concept so synonymous with our everyday being, yet simply a word to a stranger, the ability to call another by their given name serves as a preliminary step in authenticating our relationships.

“Baker vs baker” study shows that people tend to remember who you are (a baker) more often than what you’re called (Baker)

A baker bakes bread, but a Baker does...what? Photo: gdidi / Flickr
A baker bakes bread, but a Baker does…what? Photo: gdidi / Flickr
Admittedly, we become a bit jaded when our morning brews arrive on the counter with our names spelled incorrectly. However, unless you are considering changing you name to Caramel Macchiato any time soon, cut the barista a break.

Humans are much better at recognizing familiar contexts than verbatim recall. Thus, if you are a regular at your local coffee shop, the employees will most likely be able to remember your order before they begin calling your name.

Gillian Cohen coined this concept the “Baker-baker” paradox. Cohen’s work demonstrated why names are not the primary ingredient to remembering an individual.

“Thus, we remember the bakers, not the Bakers.”

In his famed experiment, two people are shown the same photograph of a face. One of them is told the man is a baker and the other is told the man’s last name is Baker.

Psychologist Ira Hyman explains: “Thinking about a baker brings many things to mind … like big ovens and those cool hats they get to wear. Importantly, I think of the person as associated with these concepts and images. The idea of a baker comes with a lot of inherent features that are intimately associated with it. In addition, the features are often the reason we’ve met.”

Upon simply hearing a name, Hyman explains, “There are no actions, objects, or images inherent to a name. Any name could be applied to a person – the name is an arbitrary concept.”

Thus, we remember the bakers, not the Bakers.

How to improve our name recall, as told by two professors

Hey dude, you wont believe the weird stuff I did to remember your name when I first met you...  Photo: Anna Vander Stel / Flickr
Hey dude, you wont believe the weird stuff I did to remember your name when I first met you… Photo: Anna Vander Stel / Flickr

The English Professor: use strange visual imageries to connect the person’s name and face – the weirder the better

In his novel, Moonwalking with Einstein, the author recounts Tony Buzan’s life-altering encounter that led to his “love affair with memory.”

During his first class at the University of British Columbia, Buzan’s English professor strolled into the room effortlessly calling roll from memory in a room full of student whom he had never met. Buzan recalls, “Whenever someone was absent, he told off their name, their father’s name, their mother’s name, their date of birth, phone number, and address.” After class, Buzan rushed to the library, eager to uncover the secrets of the human mind. Today, Buzan is regarded as a figurehead in the world of memory technique.

“To remember that his first name was Edward, I put Edward Scissorhands on the bed with him, shredding the mattress as he paddled it across the river.”

The author goes on to elaborate how Buzan and countless other mental athletes prepare for the names and faces competition. In order to easily associate the names with faces, “one dream[s] up an unforgettable image that links the face to the name. Take, for example, Edward Bedford…He was a black man with a goatee, a receding hairline, tinted sunglasses, and an earring in his left ear. To connect that face to that name, I tried to visualize Edward Bedford lying on the bed of a Ford truck, then, deciding that wasn’t distinctive enough, I saw him fording a river on a floating bed. To remember that his first name was Edward, I put Edward Scissorhands on the bed with him, shredding the mattress as he paddled it across the river.”

So there’s that technique or….

The Finance Professor: actually care about people

Professor Carl Ackermann at the University of Notre Dame does not stroll into the his famed Introductory Corporate Finance lecture on the first day reciting the names, phone numbers, and addresses of his students from memory; however, he will know the name of every one of his students within the first two weeks.

Though not a finance major, I was lucky enough to sit down with Carl Ackermann – he is always setting aside time to grab a coffee or discuss personal finance with students. Having recently read Moonwalking with Einstein, I smugly arrived, perhaps hoping to stymie him when I revealed I had discovered his secret. However, when I finally got around to asking him how he remembered the names of his four hundred students each semester, his answer took me by surprise. “I don’t have a technique,” he smiled, “I just deeply care about the people.” I was the one who must have looked like she had just been duped.

Perhaps instead of rewiring our memories, all we need to do, like Professor Ackermann, is pay a little more attention to those around us. Research tends to agree. Make that extra effort. It will keep your friendships alive and your memory young.