How To Memorize A Name

When I was a child I was always proud of my memory. I would be excellent at Pexeso (Memory game) I would never forget my homework or anything else that I was supposed to bring to school to the extent that I from time to time pretended to forget just to be more like the other kids. Then I grew up and something happened. Today I rely so much on modern technology that I’m lazy to remember anything. I’m sure if I made the effort I could revive my ability to remember but I never make the effort as it is not necessary. And it would be so handy, so many new names and faces to remember so many birthdays and passwords. It could be really handy.

My inability to remember names led me to do a bit of research on how our memory works and what can be done about it. When searching on materials on this topic I came across a great book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” written by Joshua Foer. This is not a scientific work but it well researched and written in a style that will keep you interested till the end. And most importantly it will answer all your questions you ever had about memory that you were afraid to ask.

The ancient art

In the ancient Rome and Greece, before the invention of printing press the scholars had one ability we can only envy them today. They were able to remember lots of stuff simply because they didn’t have a choice. The science and popular stories may not be written down and they were handed over from one orator to another one. The great philosophers, artist and scientists of these times had to rely on their memories and they were exceptional good at it. For example, Cicero would not try to memorize his speech word by word but rather topic by topic and associate a vivid image to each of the topics he wanted to cover in his speech and place it in some memorable place (more of this technique below). That was essentially an agenda written in his mind. Something you can try yourself. In fact, I have tried this approach in couple of my speeches and I was satisfied with the results, even though these speeches were only 10-15 minutes long.

The humanity needs

Thousands of years ago our ancestors didn’t have the need to remember much. Essentially they just needed to recognize couple of individuals from their tribe, learn and remember what around them is edible, dangerous and orient themselves in space. From these times our brain evolved a great capacity to remember visual and spatial information.

Our memories don’t follow any sort of logical structure where you would have a linear index that would allow you to access information you have once learned. The information is there somewhere but you don’t have the means to access it. Unless you map the information when storing it in such a way that your brain is able to retrieve it when needed. This is where the visual and spatial memory comes to play. And luckily for you due to human’s brain ability to reorganize itself (neuroplasticity) you can train your brain to remember things you would have never thought possible if you just give it a try and lots of effort.

The memory palace

Memory palace is a 2,500 years old technique (also known as a journey method or a method of loci) that is being used by memory enthusiasts even today and lets them remember incredible amount of data. For example the latest winner of the World Memory Championship was able to memorize 124 random words in five minutes.

How does it work? First you need a place you are really familiar with. For example the street in your neighborhood or your house. Then you create a vivid, colorful picture of the item you want to remember and put it in a distinct place in your house. The more silly the picture the more memorable it will be. For example you want to remember forever what you had for breakfast today (coffee, eggs, bread, and cheese). You can take cup of coffee and make it a pond on your yard and just add some pink ducks swimming in it for fun. Now imagine couple of eggs that are hatching and small dragons coming out of them and put them on your door steps. Let’s hang a loaf of bread, tasty, still warm, and smelling really nice on your door knob and then imagine a loaf of cheese with Mickey Mouse sitting on top of it behind the open door. Everything should be as colorful and memorable as possible. Close your eyes and really imagine you walking to your home and seeing all these things around. The next time you want to remember this menu you just imagine opening the door to your yard and walk home…

I have tried this technique on memorizing twenty completely random and nonsensical data (took me about five minutes to create the memory palace), then I repeated it from memory in an hour, then in the evening and then the day after. At that time I made a note in my calendar to try to remember in a month and forgot about the task. In a month my calendar reminded me to try and remember these twenty things and guess what? I got them all right! Now I’m a believer and I know that if I ever wanted to dedicate my free time to remembering things I could do it.

How to remember a name

Obviously, there are different approaches but one you can try is to associate the sound of person’s name with a visually interesting image. You need a clear, vivid image that you will associate with person’s face and with visual representation of his name. The more weird and silly the image the better as it will just pop into your mind when needed. For example let’s assume you want to remember John Skywalker. As it turns out John is your best friend name and walking in the sky doesn’t take much imagination. So the picture you will try to remember may be John Skywalker holding hands with your best friend walking between stars on the night sky and waving back to you. Sounds silly enough for you to remember. Next time you see his face this picture will pop up in your mind and you will quickly decode what it means.

At least that is the theory. I’ve been trying to use this technique with mixed success so far but as everything in life you need practice. Part of my problem with meeting new people is not related to memory but to paying attention. As most people even I when meeting a new person think ahead what to say instead of paying attention to his name. The practice described above will push you to focus on what the person is saying and give it couple of seconds for remembering his name. There might be an awkward silence for a bit but you can rectify it by explaining of what you just did.

Twitter type summary: “Modern technology makes us forget the ancient art of remembering. It is up to you to change that!”

How is your memory? Have you ever wondered what can you do to improve it? Are there information that you really don’t want to forget? How do you do it?

Originally published at LinkedIn.

Human brain, the biggest liar of all times

The human brain is a marvelous piece of natural technology.  It has many features but there is one that is truly unique and distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  It can imagine things. The rest of the animals living on this planet need to see, hear, touch, and experience the world around to be able to react to it. We, the human beings can do all of that in our minds. Over the last couple of millions of years mother nature provided us with a part of brain called frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex. That is the part of the brain responsible for imagining and to be really effective it uses the same areas of brain we use when we see or hear things in real-time. That allows us achieve so much more than other animals but it also makes a powerful tool for feeding us misinformation and makes us puppets to our own cheating minds. In this post I will present couple of ideas described by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness illustrated by everyday examples we all experience.

Our cheating memory

Our brain has a limited capacity to store information so it created a neat way how to do it. It stores just the highlights, just the key points from what we experience and not every single detail. When we want to retrieve that memory it gets the key points and extrapolates the rest. As you would expect it extrapolates the rest based on what we experience today and not what happened in the past. And not just on what we experience today but also on how we feel at that particular moment. This means that we essentially remember things the way we want them remember today.

For example do you remember how you felt when you tasted some food for the first time? I love to eat sauerkraut. And I also know that when I was young my mother always had to push me to eat it as I didn’t like it. Regardless how much I try to remember how it tasted back then and why I didn’t like it… I just cannot. Does the phrase “I don’t understand how I could ever live without this” ring a bell? At the other hand a food I really despise is sweet rice. Last time I ate it was when I was a child and I remember that I didn’t like it. I have no idea why. I didn’t taste it since then. My brain stored just the most basic information “sweet rice = no good” and no details around.

Our cheating imagination

The same as with the past memory applies to imagining our future. We focus only on the big picture and we don’t think about details. That is why we often overpromise on what we can deliver. We will just think about the highlights and will not think about all the small details around it.

A typical example for always busy people is to promise someone that we will have a dinner or beer with them on Friday next week. In our mind we see this picture: I just finished work at 5pm and together with friends head for dinner, get our favorite food, enjoy the conversation, and have a good time. Then Friday comes. We realize that the last meeting at work ends 5pm sharp and we need some more time to finish other tasks, it is raining outside and the weather is nasty, we are not particularly hungry, a customer just yelled at us and we are not in mood for a laugh and tomorrow morning we need to get up early to take our kids for a trip. We forgot about all these small details when imagining the future a week ago and now they are very real and visible so we pick up a phone and call our friends that we cannot make it. These little things were planned long time ago, our brain just didn’t take them into account when imagining the future. And the worst part? Our brain is cheating even now, because if we ignored him and went for the meal with friends we would have a great time…

Our brain protecting our feelings

When something bad happens to us our brain finds ways how to minimize the bad feelings about it (it finds excuses). This seems like really useful feature but it doesn’t explain why we still feel bad about some things. The trick lies in another aspect of how the brain works. It is more sensitive to changes than to total magnitude of an event. When the change is big enough, or the situation bad enough it triggers the internal psychological immune system. The brain then starts coming up with positive explanations to limit the negative impact on us and makes us feel a bit better about it. When the change is small, or just minor annoyance this internal system is not triggered. As a result we sometimes over-react, feel unreasonably upset with small things while coping much better with major disasters.

Just think about situation when some major project didn’t go as you planned, or you really screwed up. What has most likely happened was you coming up with explanations like “It wasn’t really my fault as I didn’t have all the information and no one supported me.” “I wasn’t really too interested in the project anyway, and we are better off without it.” And then compare it with situations when you get really angry with waiting too long in a line at the counter in super market or using bad language about the car ahead of you that took too long to get moving at the lights so you missed the green and need to wait two more minutes.

Since we are talking about things that irritate us let me make one more statement. We tend to remember unique situations more than common ones. And because of that our brain makes us think that they happen more often than they really do. So next time you get to the coffee machine in the office and it is out of coffee beans so you need to refill it and you say to yourself “Not again. Why does it always happen to me?” just consider the number of times it actually didn’t happen to you. You feel that it happens every day, but if you would start a diary and always make a note you would discover that it is just your brain lying to you and in fact it doesn’t happen that often as your mind makes you believe.

Our brain trying hard to make us happy

Our brain constantly tries to make us happy and altering the past in a way to protect us. When we make a decision our brain will find ways to justify that decision as the best one. As Daniel Gilbert notes “It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience.” This is the reason why we feel anxiety when having to make a decision but feel relieved once the decision is done. In fact in majority of situations we feel really good about the decision made and we like the results and the more time goes on the more sure we are it was the best decision of our life.

Twitter type summary: “Human brain has an incredible power of imagination. And it uses that power to feed us misinformation and faulty facts.”

Do you have stories to share where your brain has failed you? Have it ever happened to you that you realized you remember things differently than they happened?