“Our brains have to be selective,” says Cantwell, when we ask how our memories work in the first place. “They cannot remember everything, so they keep only what you specifically tell them to. That means you have to learn good ways of telling the brain what to remember. A popular way to help us remember names is to use mnemonics—they’re astonishingly good ways of remembering lists, names, dates and so on. They take effort, but are worth it.”
So how do you create a mnemonic? “It has two parts: Creating an effective image for the name, then attaching that image to the person in a way that’s memorable,” says Cantwell. “For Noah, it might be a man in a wooden boat; for Thomas, it might be a tank engine. Next, pick something about this person that your image can interact with: Perhaps Thomas’ eyebrows are particularly bushy, so you picture Thomas the Tank Engine struggling to push his way through the dense jungle of eyebrow hair. Suddenly, you’ve created a name mnemonic and glancing at Thomas will help you bring back his name much quicker.”
“In summary, the first step towards remembering anything—including a person’s name—is to pay close attention to it,” says Cantwell. “Repeating it to them, like, ‘Nice to meet you, Fluffy Snowball,’ (okay, I made that one up) and asking them about some aspect of it will help to consolidate the name in your head. I cannot stress strongly enough how important this step is. It’s very effective even without following it up with a mnemonic.”
Any other advice to help our tired old brains act more like cultural sponges? “Apart from “pay attention”, the main thing I always want people to take away from my talks, and what interests me most about the subject, is how extraordinarily fickle memory is,” enthuses Cantwell. “It simply cannot be relied on. We are very good at remembering the general gist of an event, but the details can change with the wind — and there is no way of realising they have done so. When trying to recall the details of an incident:
- If we didn’t see something, our brains can easily make it up.
- If we have forgotten something, again our brains can make it up.
- If something didn’t quite fit with what we wanted or expected, our brains can distort it so that it does fit.
And we don’t know that it is happening!
Feel free to tell anecdotes and stories of the past, but don’t be surprised if someone else remembers it completely differently. And there is rarely an objective way to find out, so don’t presume that you are the one who is right!”
Steve Cantwell wrote a book entitled Memory Matters: How Memory Works and How to Use It.