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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What was your name again?

One thing I find really hard to do is remembering names and faces and putting the two together. It gets really old having to stare at people's chests to read their nametags, particularly if you need to put on eyeglasses to do so. It's even more embarrassing if it's someone you're supposed to know--like your editor. I've erred on the side of caution and greeted complete strangers like the best friends I thought they were. I've stared blankly at people I know really well online but whom I haven't seen for a year. Or an hour. Apologies to you all.

A bit of science. There's a specific area of the brain for remembering faces, just as there are specific areas of the brain for reading and speaking and so on. Approximately two percent of the population suffers from prosopagnosia, which is a total inability to recognize faces. People with the condition cannot recognize anyone, not even close friends and relatives--the arrangement of features just doesn't compute, and it's mind-boggling to think how you can overcome such a condition. Major researchers of the conditiion from Harvard and University College, London, have a site,, where you can take a test. I took it, and to my surprise came out as average. The faces they show you are all sort of strange, asexual hairless creatures, rather like Voldemort but better looking.

About halfway through the test I suddenly realized that they all had different eyebrows; and rather later on, that some of them could be female. Duh. So possibly I'm better at it than I thought--because gender, after all, is a big clue (except at Nationals where it's nearly all women).

With practice, I think you can remember faces better but you do have to be able to also remember names; there's no area of the brain for that, it all comes down to memory and practice. One technique is to try and take a mental snapshot or two of the person's face and expressions, (not what they're wearing!) and , if you can, tie it into their name. There are hundreds of sources online on how to remember names, but most suggest you try and use the person's name three times in the opening conversation to batter it into your brain; or get them to repeat their name to you. Get their biz card and write something about them on the back (after your conversation, not during; they might think that's a bit weird).

This article at suggests the use of mnemonics to link names to faces. For instance, try playing with the name--breaking it down into syllables and what the individual words thus created suggest to you. Say I introduce you to my alter ego Jane Lockwood. The syllables are lock and wood; you can visualize both of them. (And, uh, remember Jane writes erotic romance, so you don't necessarily have to think about trees.)

The other method using mnemonics is to try and build an association--a visual image--of the person's name and a physical characteristic, and I must admit that one has me baffled, particularly if the person has a lavishly-syllabled middle European name, for instance. But it may be worth a try. If the person's last name is Duck and they have a flattish, protuberant nose, you're in luck (just try to stop calling him Bill unless it's his name).

Here's a list of web articles that you might find useful on how to remember names and what to do if you don't. Remember that if you sweat over it, you'll make it worse. If you go in to a room full of people worried that you're not going to remember names and setting yourself up to fail, you're not going to have fun or learn or be at your best.

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At 9:02 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

This is a real problem for me, but since a lot of writers seem to have it, I'm hanging out with a forgiving crowd. But I wish I could be like those people who say, "Oh, I met you two years ago at such and such a conference." At which point, I just trust that I attended that conference, because I don't really remember it anymore.

I think the writing life has let parts of my brain really languish. On the other hand, I can talk to myself for hours.

On the other hand, having people's little pictures by their blog comments has been a real boon.

At 11:30 AM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

I can usually remember a face (I scored 99% on the recognition test, which proves my theory), but I have trouble remembering names. And since I can't read name tags without pulling out my reading glasses, that's a problem. I know I'm a visual learner--I need to see a name to remember it. A verbal introduction goes in one ear and out the other ;-).

Another difficulty with putting conference names to faces is the frequency of the contact. I think that if we only see certain people once or twice a year, we're less likely to remember either their faces or their names. A person's importance to us matter, too--which probably explains why I have more success remembering the writers I meet at conferences and less success remembering the people I chat with once a year at my husband's company Christmas party ;-).

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Linda Banche said...

I think you tend to remember people if they are in some way unique.

For most of my work life I've been one of the few women among men (high tech). More than once some man has said to me: "I remember you--you worked at such-and-such at such-and-such a time." Since the such-and-such's were always specific and could be more than 10 years ago, I believe they saw me, but I don't remember them. Of course, I can't remember people anyway. But then, if everyone around you is similar (all men), they tend to look the same and you don't remember.

At 3:25 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

It does help to know that many of us have the same problem with remembering a name. Unlike, Terry, I can only remember a face if the hair is the same and the glasses, etc. If they have colored and cut their hair and they no longer wear glasses or hats or whatever, I don't remember them. I'm not very observant either. So you must wear your glasses Esri, or I won't recognize you!

Janet, thanks for the reminder to not get anxious or nervous about not remembering the name...that would only make things worse.

I think I'll try the name/association thing this year.

At 3:52 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

two of my big regrets in life were not recognizing people and missing the chance to reconnect with them. In both cases, I realized too late who I had seen.

I am soooo bad at names but I got a 93% on the face recognition test. Trouble is, I often can remember I know someone, but I can't place them in the right compartment in my life - Is this a writing friend, a former work colleague, a neighbor, the grocery store clerk...

At 4:18 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Diane, I do that all the time. If I see someone work-related out of my "work zone", I can't remember what their name is. Because I work with kids, the worst is not remember which set of parents goes with with kids. :)

I hope all of you Noodlers have a great time at conference!

At 10:27 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Thank you, gillian :-)! I promise I'll have a wonderful time, just for you.


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