We have a motto: “Sorry, what was your name again?”
It’s not much of a motto, but it fits us. Perhaps you can relate. In fact, you probably can. At least one study suggests that names are the hardest bits of information to remember, harder even than your spouse’s birthday or the color of a hunk of quartz partially sunk in the river mud on a cloudless day.
The truth is that nobody is good at remembering names. Not most of us, anyway. (If you are the exception, you’d do great in human resources.) Scientists tell us that the human brain just isn’t that good at committing names to memory. Here are a few reasons why:
1. The memory likes multiple points of association. Names don’t really have any. “Human memory is very good at things like faces and factual information that connects well to other information you already know,” a psychology instructor at Northwestern University, Paul Reber, told The Atlantic.
A stranger’s name “is both completely arbitrary and somewhat familiar (for common names),” said Reber, “and ends up neither connecting to what you already know nor standing out as unusual.”
2. You’re rarely introduced to someone you’re truly interested in. Richard Harris, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University, told Science Daily that the real key to remembering bits of information, such as names, is to be deeply interested in the subject.
“Some people, perhaps those who are more socially aware, are just more interested in people, more interested in relationships,” Harris said. “They would be more motivated to remember somebody’s name.”
3. Short-term memory, where you first store a new acquaintance’s name, is notoriously leaky.
Psychologists call short-term memory “working memory,” and it only keeps information around for a short time.
“You can hold just a little bit of information there and if you don’t concentrate on it, it fades away rapidly,” Reber told Khazan. “Information like a name needs to be transferred to a different brain system that creates long-term memories that persist over time.”
Reber has a point. So if you want to get better at remembering names, how can you help to transfer that information into long-term storage?
Dr. Gary Small, director of the Memory and Aging Research Center and the UCLA Center on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles, has developed a technique that he says works every time. He calls the practice, “Look, Snap, Connect.”
The first step is simple—look at the person when they tell you their name. If they have a name tag, look at that as well. Then proceed to the next step, which is to “snap” a mental picture of the face, the name, or both. In the third step, you make mental connections between the person and more familiar images. For instance, if someone’s name is Brody, you might picture a fluttering My Little Pony. That’ll remind you of Bronies, and that’s close enough to get you home to the name Brody. Hopefully.
Remember: Look, Snap, Connect. In time, you might end up with a much more endearing catchphrase than ours: “Sorry, what was your name again?”