How the brain remembers names

By Terry Small
Mar 4, 2020
Photo credit: sanjeri/iStock/Getty Images

Listen to our podcast episode with this article's author, Terry Small, and Leah Giesbrecht, communications specialist, CPABC. Part of our Coffee Chats with CPABC podcast series.

Forgetting someone's name is socially embarrassing, and bad for business. 

Remembering names is one of the most important business and social skills on the planet. 19 out of 20 people at my live seminars tell me they are terrible at this important skill. When we forget a person's name, especially in an important business or social situation, it's not good.

We feel socially inept, uncomfortable, and embarrassed. Not to mention the bad first impression we have just made. You can change this. Fast. The secret lies in your brain.

Close your eyes and think of a horse. No...stop and really do this! Notice you thought up a picture of a horse. You didn't see the letters "h-o-r-s-e" floating nowhere in space. You saw a picture of a horse. Your brain thinks in pictures, not words. Case in never walk up to someone and say, "You know, I remember your name, but your face escapes me!"

When you picture something vividly in your brain, your memory improves 800%. Anything that improves your memory 800% should get your attention! The reason that you forget names is that you focus on the word not the picture.

Here are 4 steps to make you 10 times better a remembering names (or anything):

Pay attention

You can't remember what you don't pay attention to. Train yourself to hear a little voice inside your head that says, "This person's name is important. I choose to remember it."

Repeat the name

When you hear something again out loud retention improves 400%. This activates auditory neural pathways to your brain. It is not enough to hear it in your head. It must go through your ears. So use the person's name back to him in your response (e.g. "It's nice to meet you, Tom. My name is Susan").

Write it down

Writing the person's name down will improve your memory another 50% (even if you never look at it again). This activates visual neural pathways to your brain. If you can't write it down on paper, write it on the big picture screen of your mind (e.g., spray painting the name on a wall or hanging the name in neon lights on Broadway).

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Turn it into a picture

This is the big pay-off! All memories are created in association with other memories. Here is my favorite: I just picture the person I have just met doing something with someone I know who has the same name (e.g. I might put them on a teeter-totter together).

Later, when you are trying to remember the name, the picture will drive your memory. You will recognize the other person in the picture and say, "Oh yeah, that's Tom."

A person's name is the most important sound to that person in any language! You can get better at this. Start tomorrow. It's good practice for your brain.

Terry Small, B.Ed., M.A., is a master teacher and Canada's leading learning skills specialist. He is the author of the Brain Bulletin with over 34,000 subscribers worldwide.