by Max Sirak
It's happened to us all. Maybe it was a meet-and-greet cocktail hour. Perhaps a dinner party at your neighbors. Or, the dreaded first family holiday at your new boyfriend's or girlfriend's place…
“Oh, Max…it's so nice to finally meet you. We've heard so much about you. I'm Sara,” your girlfriend's sister says. Then, with her glass of rose′ as a pointer, she continues around the room. “That's my husband, Bill. Over there, chasing Monk, the dog, around the table are Eva, Clara, Jack, and Charlie. Playing cards in the living room are Jeff, Lindsay, Carl and Kate. Our other sister, Caitlyn, should be here with her husband, Will, and their two kids, John and Jim, any minute now. Please, come in. Get a drink. Make yourself at home.”
Two thoughts race across your mind: “There's no way in hell I'm going to remember all these people's names…”
And: “That poor dog.”
Now – remember – this is your new significant other's family you're meeting here. You've never seen any of them before. And, let's assume you're really into the person you're dating. You can see building a future with him or her. You want to make a good first impression on the family.
What do you do?
You go in, grab a drink, insinuate yourself into a conversation (or run around and chase Monk with the kids), be yourself, and have a good time – just like Sara said. That's a no-brainer, right?
How do you remember the names and faces of all these people in hopes of not making a complete ass of yourself at the next family get-together?
That's a full-brainer. And, also what we're going to talk about today. With help from our friend, Joshua Foer, we're going to learn a five step process adapted from professional memoirists (yes, that's a thing) to help us better remember names.
But before we learn the five steps for remembering names and faces, let's take a look at why it's so difficult…
Behold The Brain
First off – let's give our brains credit. They are marvelous. They are the reason you can read this. They are responsible for everything we've ever done, are doing now, and likely will do in the future.
Resting inside our skulls, using 20% of the oxygen we breathe, consuming 25% of all the calories we eat, is a three-pound piece of equipment from the Pleistocene era. And, for those of us, like myself, who aren't up on our geological epochs – that was 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago.
The brain is made up of roughly 100 billion neurons all connected to one another. And, these connections, which number between five-hundred-thousand-billion to one-million-billion, are our memories.
Since memories are connections between our neurons – they are like the silky strands forming the web of our minds.
And, like Foer says in his book, Moonwalking With Einstein, “Too often we talk about our memories as if they were banks into which we deposit new information when it comes in, and from which we withdraw old information when we need it. But that metaphor doesn't reflect the way our memories really work.”
Our memories aren't linear filing cabinets. They're an associative net anchored between all our neurons. So the action of remembering isn't like opening well-labeled drawers and picking through nicely alphabetized files. It's about finding the right strand of the web.
And this is the first important thing to remember about remembering.
Because – due to the neural-connective nature of our memories – we fall victim to what psychologists call:
The baker/Baker Paradox
OK – let's say you're introduced to two new people. One is a baker by trade. The other's last name is Baker.
When you meet the baker, immediately your mind takes in what they look like and goes, “I like bakers. They wear white hats. They get splattered with flour. They make bread. Oh, I like bread. It tastes good. And the smell!”
Whereas – when you meet someone with the last name, Baker, you brain takes in what they look like and goes, “Um….ok….I went to middle school with a kid named Brent Baker….uh…”
With the baker – what they look like and each of the other associations you conjure (the smell of fresh bread, the way it tastes, etc.) represent a point-of-connection within the web of your memory.
The same exact thing happens with the Baker. Except this time the only points-of-connection are what the person in front of you looks like, what Brent Baker looked like (a Ginger with freckles), and how you felt about him.
The baker has eight points-of-connection. The Baker has three.
Each point-of-connection is an anchor. The more anchors a memory has the stronger it is. And the stronger a memory is, the easier it is to recall.
And this is how we get better at remembering people's names. We use The baker/Baker Paradox. We associate as many points-of-connection as we possibly can, strengthening the strand of memory, to the person.
“The trick is deceptively simple. It is always to associate the sound of a person's name with something you can clearly imagine. It's all about creating a vivid image in your mind that anchors your visual memory of the person's face to a visual memory connected to the person's name. When you need to reach back and remember the person's name at some later date, the image you created will simply pop back into your mind…” (Ed Cooke,Moonwalking With Einstein)
Simple, like Ed said, right?
However, just because something is simple doesn't make it easy.
So, to make The 5 Steps as easy as possible, we need to learn a bit about what we are likely to remember in the first place.
Our brains are wired to remember novelty. The funnier, more ridiculous, more sexually explicit, and more animated (as in, actually moving) an anchor is – the more likely we'll be able to recall it.
Our brains are also wired to more easily remember sensory perceptions. This is another reason for The baker/Baker Paradox. Not only do we get all the visual impressions connected to bakers when we meet one – olfactory and oral impressions get triggered as well. We get the smell of freshly baked bread and also the taste.
We can use these tidbits when we craft our points-of-connection upon meeting a new person. The more lewd, funny, animated, and sensual (as in, appealing to the senses) we can make our associative anchors – the better.
The last thing to keep in mind before practicing The 5 Steps might actually be the most important:
“Attention of course, is a prerequisite to remembering. Generally, when we forget the name of a new acquaintance, it's because we're too busy thinking about what we're going to say next, instead of paying attention.” (Moonwalking With Einstein)
Still with me?
Great. May I introduce….
Max's Handy-Dandy 5 Steps To Remembering Names and Faces
Step 1 – Meet someone new.
Step 2 – Pay attention to them. Spend a moment or two really taking in their appearance. Don't zone out. Don't start thinking about what you're going to say next. Give yourself the time to form a firm mental image of what they look like. This is an anchor.
(Try not to be too creepy during this step. Don't get all bug-eyed and leer.)
Step 3 – Break down the sound of their name into the most novel rebus you can. Turn their name into a visual puzzle like the Classic Concentration game show from the 80s. Or, into some sort of animated gif.
(And remember – the funnier, sexier, more ridiculous, and multi-sensory – the better.)
Step 4 – Form a visual impression of the physical space you are in. Are there distinguishing characteristics of the location? A specific piece of art, a certain couch, table, chair, barstool, etc.?
Step 5 – Take the image from Step 2, the anchors you created for Step 3, and put them together in the space from Step 4.
Alright – before we try it – I have one last pro-tip: When you're making your points-of-connection in Step 3, be sure to use source material that is meaningful to you. Use what you already know and like. It makes the anchor stickier.
(If you're not a fan of fast-food and Looney Toons then the image of Ronald McDonald firing an oversized Marvin The Martian ray gun at the 40th President of the United States is not a good way to remember Ronald Reagan.)
Now – let's practice…
Step 1 – Meet me.
Step 2 – Spend time basking in my glory. Notice the mother-of-pearl snaps on my blue shirt and the green shirt beneath. Remember the big glasses, small eyes, and big nose. Take in the fine hair, scruff, and good teeth.
Step 3 – Break down the sound of my name,Max Sirak (pronounced SIR-ak), into meaningful, novel animated images.
For Max: Did you have a pet named Max when you were a kid? What about a grandparent? If so – use that. If not – picture some other Max you already know well. If you don't know anyone named Max – use the image of a giant “M” holding an axe dripping with blood.
For Sirak: Are you a fan of the original Star Trek? Do you remember Spock's dad, Sarek? (Pictured above. After the cat in the tux, which I promise, really is relevant.) Are you a big drinker? Use Ciroc vodka. That's probably close enough. If no to both – then picture the most outlandish formally dressed old guy choking. I'm talking tux with tails, white gloves, pocket watch, top hat, dressed to the nines. Hear him trying to cough something up. “AK-AK-AK.”
Step 4 – Since we aren't actually meeting in person – you can place me wherever you want. Maybe it's how you think the Internet looks and there are 0s and 1s whizzing by? Did we meet in a park? A cafe? You choose. (Remember – under normal conditions – it IS the place you are).
Step 5 – Put it all together. Take the anchors you created from Step 2, along with all the detail from Step 3, happening in Step 4.
Using the anchors provided above, here are some possibilities of what your Step 5 might look like…
(Disclaimer: you want these images to be explicit and vivid. So, if you're easily offended – please skip #3.)
1) You see my image (Step 2) watching a giant capital “M” wielding a bloody axe chopping repeatedly into the back of on old guy who looks like Rich Uncle Pennybags. He's in a tux with tails and white gloves. He's using one hand to hold his top hat in place as he's doubled over retching, “Ak-Ak-Ak.” (Step 3) Ones and zeroes are zipping by because we met online. (Step 4).
2) You see my image (Step 2) sipping coffee at the cafe where we met (step 4). Across from me your childhood cat, Max,is standing upright on the table coughing up a hairball. But isn't he precious in his little cat-tux? Look at that bowtie. Awww… (Step 3)
3) You see me (Step 2) in the park where we met (Step 4). Your Grandpa Max is there too. He's standing against your favorite tree, head thrown back and eyes shut. You hear a slight moan. That's odd. Wait – who's that dude in the lavender robe with the pointy ears? Why is he on his knees? You can hear him gagging and choking. Oh…OH! Wow. Who knew Spock's dad was such a giver? Or that Grandpa Max was so well-endowed? (This is a good Step 3. It's explicit, sexual, and humorous. This is what you want.)
And that my friends – is how we can work with our minds and use The baker/Baker Paradox to remember people's faces and names.
Like any new skill, in the beginning, you're probably going to suck. But that's OK. With a little practice you'll breeze through The 5 Steps and be creating sticky-icky anchors.
Now – go out there and think dirty thoughts about your future sister-in-law Sara!