How Memory Works

Why do we forget things?

There are many reasons why we forget things. Let's consider a minor but excruciating example - even though you only met them ten minutes ago, you’ve forgotten the name of the person you’re talking to at a party and you know you’re going to need to introduce them.

Fortunately, there’s a good deal we can do about this if we choose. Perhaps the biggest reason we forgot their name was that we simply weren't paying enough attention in the first place. 

While they were introducing themselves, we were focused on whether there’s spinach stuck in our teeth, the right stance to best show off our paunch, and what we’re going to say next. 

In that flurry of self-conscious unawareness, our attention was elsewhere. Like a fragile snowflake turning immediately to slush on tarmac, the memory never got a chance to land, let alone settle.

So what can we do?

Well, we can follow Dale Carnegie’s immortal, self-serving advice to use their name in conversation as soon as possible… “So, Bill, how about those Yankees, eh?”. This forces us to listen. And more importantly, to use a name is to practice remembering it. This is known as active recall.

So, you’ve repeated their name to yourself soon after hearing it, even if only in your own head. That brings us to the second thing about memory. Memories need repetition in the same way that seeds need nourishment in order to grow.

At first, they benefit most from little reminders often. Once you’ve known something for a long time, those reminders can grow further apart. Tolkien said it best: deep roots are not reached by the frost. 

How to boss it

So, if you really wanted to do a better job of remembering names, then you'd remind yourself almost instantly, and then right after the conversation ended, and then maybe on the way home, and then after a few days, and a few weeks... Schedule those intervals between reminders to grow exponentially for optimal recollection.

If we wanted to go further, we could bring out the big guns, the sort of mnemonic munitions that competitive memorisers rely on - vivid mnemonics

Vivid Mnemonics

My name is Greg. Take a look at my face. It’s a punchable face, to be sure, but ignore that for now. My nickname as a youth was ‘Grog’ (after an unfortunate incident camping in the forest involving pot noodles, my first interaction with whisky, and effluence all over our tent). If you imagine me swigging a bottle of grog in a piratical fashion with some vomit dribbling out of the corner of my mouth, you’ve more than doubled your likelihood of remembering my name. 

Or if you don't find that helpful, you can imagine me as Greg with a wooden peg leg. In other words, you’re trying to make a rich, vivid, visual association between the person’s face and their name. Caricature their face, distort their name, and build a bridge between them. The more obscene, funny, ridiculous or sexual you can make your image-bridge, the better. 

And though it seems like quite a lot of work to go around imagining Jemima wearing ludicrous pyjamas, or Sam face-deep in a can of spam, it will double the likelihood of remembering their name later.

Remember what you just read?

So, listen in the first place, actively recall soon after, and remind oneself periodically. Beyond that, the trade-off between effort and benefit becomes less clear. Really effective mnemonic techniques involve a good deal of concentration and imagination. 

You have to make a lot of effort if you want to be able to reliably bed down lots of names. You may be better off focusing your energies on being a good listener and interlocutor, or on being more accepting of your own faults, or on assembling a roster of urbane self-deprecating apologies to smooth over the occasional inevitable memory hiccup.

Greg Detre


Greg is a neuroscientist and the Co-Founder of Memrise, the world’s 2nd largest language learning app. He currently oversees our tech strategy at Heights.