The newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University

The Name Game

Imagine attending a cocktail party, where your elegant hostess introduces you to a new person. You hit it off, chat happily for fifteen minutes, and as you walk away you realize you cannot remember your new friend's name. Just one more sign that your memory isn't what it used to be, right?

Actually, no. Lapses like this probably have very little to do with memory and a great deal to do with attention. Much of the time, when we "forget" something, it isn't so much that we fail to recall the information; it's that we never stored it properly in the first place. When the cocktail party hostess mentioned the name, odds are that you weren't paying full attention.

You were also evaluating whether the newcomer looked like an interesting person, whether he might be interested in hearing about your pet cat, whether the tray of hors d'oeuvres was passing within reach, everything except that new name. The name never got the attention it deserved, and so memory for it will be shaky at best.

Next time you need to remember someone's name, or any other bit of random information, make the effort to store it properly. Repetition is a good start: use the name a few times. "Nice to meet you, Nelson. Do you have any kids, Nelson?" Every time you hear yourself speak the name, it will become a little more firmly embedded in your memory. After the conversation, as you walk away, practice a few more times: "That guy's name was Nelson. Nelson works in the banking industry." These repetitions create a stronger memory.

A week later, when you bump into Nelson on the street, you'll have a fighting chance of recalling his name because it was firmly stored in your memory in the first place.