How Can We Improve Our Memory of Names?
Cynthia Ly and Dillon Murphy
Have you ever been in a situation in which you recognize someone but cannot quite recall their name? Or maybe you remember their name but cannot picture how the person looks? Recalling and recognizing someone’s name and face may seem like easy tasks at first glance, but can be challenging, especially at advanced ages. This phenomenon can be due to various changes in the brain as a result of normal aging such as a reduced brain volume (particularly in the frontal cortex), a decrease in dendritic synapses, a loss of dendritic plasticity, and shifts in neurotransmitters and hormone levels (Peters, 2006). These modifications can subsequently induce changes in cognition and memory performance, making one less able to remember important information. As a result, it is common for older adults to complain about difficulties when remembering names and faces, among other things such as their last activity or where they placed an item. To address this issue, several studies have investigated ways of maximizing the learning and retention of names and faces. Such studies highlight the strategies and techniques that can help with this prevalent memory complaint.
Repetition, the act of studying something several times, and rehearsal, the mental maintenance of incoming information, are generally thought to improve memory. Thus, these techniques could potentially enhance the learning of names and faces. For example, Biss et al. (2018) examined whether showing previously studied face-name pairs in a separate face judgment task (i.e., another study opportunity) could benefit people’s memory of the names. Although the face judgment task only required participants to identify whether two consecutively presented faces were identical or different (which requires the faces to be maintained in memory), it provided participants with an implicit opportunity to rehearse the face-name pairs, particularly those that had been studied before. Results demonstrated that showing face-name pairs again in the face judgment task significantly improved older adults’ memory performance compared to attempting immediate recall of the face-name associations without the opportunity to rehearse them again, but this difference was not seen in younger adults. Hence, repetition and rehearsal can improve face-name recollection in older adults.
The level-of-processing effect has also been used to enhance learning. The level-of-processing framework posits that an item’s level of analysis determines how well it will be remembered with deeper levels of processing (i.e., thinking about information semantically such as whether a word would fit in a sentence or how pleasant a word is) resulting in better memory relative to shallow levels of processing, such as phonemic (i.e., interpreting sounds) or physical processing (i.e., focusing on perceptual characteristics; Craik & Lockhart, 1972). For example, you would be better able to remember a word if you considered the meaning of the word or associated it with prior knowledge than if you just studied the typeface of the word. Applied to remembering names, semantic processing would involve learning the meaning of the name and relating the name to other words with similar meanings, phonemic processing would be studying the sound of the name (e.g., generating a word that rhymes with the name), and physical processing would involve examining the physical qualities of the name (e.g., focusing on the first letter of the name).
To assess whether there is a level-of-processing effect when learning names, Troyer et al. (2006) instructed younger and older adults to study surnames using either physical processing, phonemic processing, or semantic processing—for semantic processing, a definition or an association was provided (e.g., the name “Dean” would be defined as a university administrator or associated with James Dean). Results revealed that name recall and recognition by both younger and older adults were the worst when engaging in physical processing, mediocre when engaging in phonemic processing, and best when engaging in semantic processing. Therefore, learning names by associating them with prior knowledge or semantically is an effective way to improve name recall and recognition.
Another technique that is believed to improve memory is retrieval practice, which is the act of recovering or locating information stored in memory and bringing it to conscious awareness. To better understand the benefits of retrieval practice when learning names, Morris et al. (2005) compared name learning when being re-presented with names to attempting to retrieve names at increasing time intervals following their initial presentation. Additionally, semantic associations were incorporated into the name learning whereby participants were instructed to find meaning in some parts or in the whole name. Results revealed that retrieval practice improved later recall compared with merely restudying names. Moreover, similar to Troyer et al. (2006), seeking meaning and developing semantic associations in names also benefited the learning and remembering of names. Thus, Morris et al. (2005) not only demonstrated that retrieval practice was better than re-presentations in helping recall names, but also that re-presentations and retrieval practice were more effective in helping recall names when developing semantic associations.
Another popular memory aid is mnemonics, which are learning techniques that use patterns of letters, ideas, and/or associations to help remember certain facts or large pieces of information (e.g., PEMDAS or “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” can be used to remember the order of operations in mathematics). Therefore, Hill et al. (1987) investigated the effect of mnemonic training on name-face recall among older adults. First, all subjects took a pre-test where they were told to learn name-face pairs and later recall the name when a face was displayed. Then, participants were placed either in a control group where they did not receive mnemonic training or in an experimental group where they received training that consisted of three components: identifying a distinguishing feature of the person’s face (e.g., a wide mouth), creating a concrete, high-imagery transformation of the person’s name (e.g., the name “Whealen” becomes “A whale”), and forming a visual image associating the prominent feature with the transformed name (e.g., a whale in the person’s mouth). Mnemonic training improved name memory, indicating that one of the ways to better remember names is to train yourself to identify facial features and create visual images that can help you associate facial features with certain people.
In addition to these memory-enhancement techniques, there are habits that you can incorporate into your lifestyle to help improve your memory of names. Often, the reason why people forget names is that they did not learn them well in the first place due to a variety of reasons, such as not paying attention or not hearing them clearly (Budson, 2018). According to Dr. Alan Castel, a professor of Cognitive Psychology at UCLA, when learning and trying to remember a new name, you should make sure you heard the name well, ask how to spell it, and ask about its origins. Then, repeat the name after hearing it and use the name later as a form of retrieval practice. You can also use imagery to link the name to something you know and/or another person by that name. Dr. Castel suggests that this is a process you could go through a few times throughout the day and right before bed to better remember a name. Following these simple tips can potentially alleviate some of the struggles that come with remembering names and encourage older adults to engage in daily activities that can help deal with some inevitable obstacles that come with aging (Castel, 2019).
In sum, forgetting a name or face is nothing to be ashamed of because it is often a concern for a lot of people; it can be a difficult thing to do for any individual and not just those of older age (Hargis et al., 2020). There are many effective methods that we can use to help better remember the names and faces of the people around us such as repetition, rehearsal, semantic processing, retrieval practice, and mnemonics, all of which could provide potentially needed assistance in learning new names and faces, particularly for older adults. Hence, if you have a parent, grandparent, or some individual who is important to you that is struggling to remember names, becoming aware of these strategies can pave the way for learning how to improve the memory of names.
Biss, R. K., Rowe, G., Weeks, J. C., Hasher, L., & Murphy, K. J. (2018). Leveraging older adults' susceptibility to distraction to improve memory for face-name associations. Psychology and Aging, 33, 158-164.
Budson, A. E. (2018, March 18). Is it normal to forget a name? Psychology Today. Retrieved April 5, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/managing-your-memory/201803/is-it-normal-forget-name.
Castel, A. D. (2019). Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging. Oxford University Press.
Craik, F. I., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.
Hargis, M. B., Whatley, M. C., & Castel, A. D. (2020). Remembering proper names as a potential exception to the better-than-average effect in younger and older adults. Psychology and Aging, 35, 497-507.
Hill, R. D., Sheikh, J. I., & Yesavage, J. (1987). The effect of mnemonic training on perceived recall confidence in the elderly. Experimental Aging Research, 13, 185-188.
Morris, P. E., Fritz, C. O., Jackson, L., Nichol, E., & Roberts, E. (2005). Strategies for learning proper names: Expanding retrieval practice, meaning, and imagery. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 779-798.
Peters, R. (2006). Ageing and the brain. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 82, 84-88.
Troyer, A. K., Häfliger, A., Cadieux, M. J., & Craik, F. I. (2006). Name and face learning in older adults: effects of level of processing, self-generation, and intention to learn. The Journal of Gerontology. Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 61, 67-74.