Esther Heerema, MSW, is a licensed social worker who has worked with hundreds of individuals with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. She is passionate about advocating for, and working with, those with Alzheimer's and their loved ones. Read more
Updated July 23, 2015.
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The Challenge of Remembering Names
Ever have it where you just can’t remember someone’s name? You’ve met her before and she greets you by name. You respond, “It’s so nice to see you again!” (and hope she doesn’t notice the fact that you didn't use her name).
The Benefits of Using Names
Cultivating the gift of learning names can benefit you socially and professionally, and it conveys to others that they are important- that you actually care enough to know their name and identify them specifically.
Why Is It Difficult to Remember Names?
So, are some people just gifted with a natural ability for name-remembering or have they worked on developing that gift? Do others just have a poor memory for names?
One reason remembering names may be difficult, according to Dr.
Richard Harris of Kansas State University, is that we often don't pay attention. Harris points out that most people have a good memory for something, and that "something" depends on their interest. Those invested in interpersonal relationships may have a higher motivation to be attentive to names when meeting new people.
Distraction can also play a role. We might be introduced to multiple people at one time, be rehearsing in our head the speech we have to make in 10 minutes or be fatigued from the long day and looking forward to relaxing at home.
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Strategies to Remember Names
- Repeat the name in your head.
- Repeat the person's name out loud. ("Hi John! It's nice to meet you.")
- Be deliberate in paying attention to the name.
- Ask how to spell it, if it’s less common and appropriate.
- Attach meaning to it in your head. If his name is Sam, think to yourself about how Sam rhymes with fam, fam is short for family and Sam has a large family.
- Record the name in your phone after you meet her. (Yes, this is "cheating," but it does help.)
- Make a point to use people’s names consistently to establish the habit.
- Understand the importance of using names. Remember that names are a key way of connecting with others.
Learning and Remembering Names in Large Groups
As an adjunct university professor, I have often played a name game on the first day of class. Each student has to introduce himself by stating his name and then identifying something he likes that begins with the same letter as his first name. For example, I might say, "I'm Esther and I like eggs." The next student would say, "Esther likes eggs. I'm Tim and I like tea." The next would say, "Esther likes eggs. Tim likes tea. I'm Sam and I like sushi." We'll go around the entire room in this manner and then I'll go last, saying everyone's names and what each person likes.
Turns out, there's research that supports this method, in addition to my anecdotal evidence. The Journal of Experimental Psychology Applied published a study that essentially demonstrated the same concept after scientifically testing it.
Why does it work? It puts into practice several of the strategies identified above. It requires attention, repetition (both out loud and in your mind as you wait your turn) and it associates something else with the name which helps provide meaning to it. This is called elaborative rehearsal. and it's generally far more effective than simple repetition at placing information in our memories.
Is Forgetting Names a Warning Sign of Dementia ?
Perhaps you know someone with dementia who is unable to remember other people's names. You can tell by her smile that she recognizes you, but she can't come up with your name. While word-finding and the loss of names does occur in dementia, the inability to remember someone else's name is often a matter of never learning it in the beginning.
However, if you are unable to remember the names of family members and frequently can't come up with the correct word, it's time to make an appointment with your doctor to explore these concerns.
Your doctor can order some tests that could help identify possible reversible causes for poor memory. such as low levels of vitamin B12 or an infection. She can also screen for signs of dementia. Even though this may be an anxiety-provoking experience for you, there are many benefits to early detection of dementia, including the possibility of more effective treatment.
Journal of Experimental Psychology Applied. 2000. Vol. 6. No.2 p. 124-129. The Name Game: Using Retrieval Practice to Improve the Learning of Names. http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xap62124.pdf
Kansas State University. News and Communication Services. June 20, 2012. What's your name again? Why it might not be your brain's ability but your lack of interest that causes a bad memory. http://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/jun12/memory62012.html