How to remember anyone's name - with a little help from science


women drinking wine on a date


Halfway through your trip on the elevator with your new coworker, you finally admit it to yourself: You forgot her name.

As a recent New York Times Magazine piece points out, forgetfulness - particularly of the name-specific variety - is fairly common. This time, you might escape with a quick wave-and-nod.

But what about next time?

Thankfully, there's a way to prevent occasionally blanking out on tricky details like names or specific locations. All you have to do is follow a few simple steps.


Get visual.

When you meet someone new for the first time, take a picture of the scene with your mind. What is this person wearing? What color is his or her hair? Eyes? Is she or he smiling?

Whether you're aware of it or not, your brain is forming a snapshot of this precise moment as you experience it via a complex process known as encoding - but it's up to you to keep the memory solid so that it's accessible later on. More precisely, you have to trick your brain into storing a memory for the long-term instead of shoveling into the short-term file, where the majority of our memories go to flicker and die.

One of the reasons we forget so frequently, says writer and US Memory Champion Joshua Foer in a recent TED talk, is because we store so many similar versions of memories.

Think about how many times you've been introduced to a friend-of-a-friend or met a stranger at a party. Your brain has encoded thousands of these memories.

They all start to look the same to your brain, and eventually, they begin to blur.


The Devil Wears Prada

The reason Meryl Streep can never remember Anne Hathaway's name in The Devil Wears Prada: She can't separate her memory of her from her memory of any other average person on the street.

In order to protect a memory and ensure you can recall it later, you have to make it distinguishable from the rest.

If you remember that the person you just met had striking white hair and was wearing a red dress, for example, you're more likely to separate that memory from a pile of semi-recollected visions of rushed handshakes, awkward hugs, and clinking glasses.

Look at their eyes.

Sure, you glanced at the person you just met, but did you really pay attention to his or her eyes?

A 2007 study in which researchers tracked the eye movements of volunteers as they looked at new faces found that those who better remembered the names linked with those faces also tended to spend more time gazing at the strangers' eyes than at other parts of their face or head.


Get creative.

To strengthen the connection between someone's face (which you can usually remember) and his or her name, create subtle, creative, reminders for yourself. Say you just met a Tom, for instance. The word "Tom" makes you think of "Tomcat." Come to think of it, Tom does look a little cat-like, you think to yourself. The next time you see Tom, you'll remember Tomcat (and you'll hopefully remember to just call him Tom).

Foer mentions using this technique in his TED talk when he points out that people are more likely to remember that someone they've just met is a baker than that their last name is Baker.

"The entire art of remembering stuff better in everyday life," Foer says in the talk, "is figuring out ways to transform capital B Bakers into lower-case B bakers -to take information that is lacking in context, in significance, in meaning and transform it in some way so that it becomes meaningful in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind."

Get emotional.

Don't worry - there's no need to shed any tears. Establishing an emotional connection to the person or object you're trying to remember can help you recall them (or it) later.

In a recent review, Harvard and MIT scientists studied how people performed on different types of memory tests, from recalling hundreds of photos to remembering the color of a few simple squares drawn on a computer.


They found that people were consistently better at recalling photos - even if they were supposed to remember far more of them - than random shapes and colors.

With the photographs, they were able to link what they saw with their own personal feelings or memories. A photograph of a roller coaster, for example, might prompt some to remember the thrill or fear of their first ride. This sense of meaningfulness helped them solidify the memory in their brains. Looking at a simple pink square, by contrast, just couldn't compete.


If you can, get ahold of a new person's name before you meet them. A 2011 study found that people were significantly better at learning the names of strangers when they saw the names ahead of time.

As University of Massachusetts Amherst professor of psychology Susan Krauss Whitbourne writes in a post for Psychology Today, "knowing the name first gives you an anchor that you can use later to associate with the person's face."

Focus, focus, focus.

When's the last time you were introduced to an important person in the middle of a crowded party? Were you focused solely on searing an image of the new person into your brain, or were you shaking hands while simultaneously trying to wave at a distant friend in the back of the room, keep an eye on the cute gentleman in the corner, and pick up your refilled glass of wine?


If you're like most people, you probably found yourself in the latter scenario. And as a result, you also probably forgot the person's name by the time he or she walked away.

When you don't focus, your brain doesn't get the chance to store, or encode, a memory properly. As a result, when you try to access the information stored there later, you can't, because it was never really there in the first place.

To avoid this the next time you shake hands or say hello, concentrate. You'll give your brain a better chance at properly forming the memory so you're more likely to be able to access it later.

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