The newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University

Most of the time, when we meet someone new, it’s much easier to remember the face than the name that goes with it. One reason for this difference is that most faces (except those of identical twins) are unique, but most names are not. John Wayne, John Lennon, and John Kennedy all shared the same first name, although their faces and personalities were very different. The same goes for Marie Curie, Marie Osmond, and Marie Antoinette. If your new friend has a common name, it may be hard to create a distinct memory for that name.

In order to get around this problem, you need to find a way to make the name memorable. One way is to try to create a visual link between the person’s name and his face. If your new friend has a nickname like Rusty (for his red hair) or Shorty (for his height), then it’s easier. With luck, when you see your new friend, his visual appearance will help remind you of the nickname.

But what about all the other people whose names seem to have no relationship to the way they look? In those cases, you need to make your own links. One trick is to form a visual association between your new friend and a celebrity of the same name. If your new friend’s name is John, you might picture him up on stage, singing along with John Lennon, or riding a horse on a movie set with John Wayne. To remember Marie’s name, imagine her working in a science lab with Marie Curie or trying to save Marie Antoinette from the guillotine. Make the image as detailed as you can. If it’s bizarre or humorous, so much the better.

Since greater effort often means better memory, the mere fact of creating and remembering this visual image will strengthen your memory of the name. The visual image may also help you recall the name later: Next time you see John or Marie, remember the image and the celebrity, and that will remind you of the corresponding name.

Of course, if your friend has an uncommon name, like Wilberforce or Andromeda, it may be hard to come up with an appropriate celebrity. But in those cases, the names themselves may be so unique that they will stick in your memory without much additional help!