After four years of making my way through crowds of familiar faces, I have quite a confession to make. I have developed relationships, big blooming ones even, with people whose names have still not stuck to the synapses of my Hippocampus. My window of opportunity, so to speak, to ask a name again has long since elapsed. If your epidermis is showing, then by Jove, so is my Hippocampus. It’s showing when I stutter with fear, pawning off a moment of utter forget with an awkward introduction onto whomever I happen to be standing with: “This is my friend Bill, Bill, this is please say your name before I have to. “Please say your name before I have to, Bill, Bill, before I have to.” It’s showing all around us, every minute—in bathrooms and airplanes, boardrooms and poker tables.
What then, is a Hippocampus, you may ask. It is my privilege and duty to introduce to you, no pun intended, a word that sounds more like the Latin verbiage for ‘hippos lounging in swamp’ than a part of your brain. There are two Hippocampi, actually, both linked to memory. But the Hippocampus on the left temporal lobe stores emotional impact and controls ‘declarative memory,’ or memories which can be explicitly verbalized. So what is it, then, about this part of the brain that allows names to flutter in one ear and out the other, as though you never heard them at all?
The mind is set up to store and retrieve information—anywhere from brief tidbits of sensory information to the retention of language and personal experiences, which become a part of our permanent memory. Short term memory, then, is the system that retrieves information “in use,” like a telephone number.
Mandatory last name basis would never be accepted as the answer to our problem—too caustic. And required name tags, too tacky. What then do we do?
There are tactics psychologists have claimed to aid in memory retention. Their argument is that we never created an ‘effective memory code in the first place,’ leaving us with a failing memory. To the PR’s of the world these tool s are their Bible, to business entrepreneurs, their brownie points. But somehow, I still can’t shake the habit.
The first guideline is to pay attention. If you can remember the first sentence of this article, then you need not read ahead at all. Call MENSA; tell them I sent you. But for the rest of us, ‘paying attention’ has become more of a theory than a practice—something we don’t do but compensate for the fact that we didn’t. So we move to guideline number two: ‘elaborating the information.’ When you are asked a name, expand on it, “Princess Lea, you say, is that Hawaiian? Any relation to the Royal family? Lay-uh, huh.” Or if you’re a more discreet, try sticking to spelling or socio-historic background, “Paul Revere, so do you spell that with two V’s? Is that Anglo Saxon or Pagan?” But in the process, people may look at you like your ignorant, or can’t spell, and then probably forget your name in the process.
So then we turn to mnemonic devices with, ‘imagery as our cornerstone.’ Again, this is a beautiful trick in theory, but gets complicated in practice. We want to make a connection, yes. Go wild with the picture you paint in your head—add trees and circus animals if need be. We want to get personal, indeed. But offend? Heavens no! Or at least not out loud. Let’s say Frank is fat. Add a little mnemonic fairy dust, and poof, he’s now fat Frank. But wait, it also works with personal judgments: Let’s say Peter is pretentious—he quotes obscure German philosophy and addresses himself in the third person. Poof! Pretentious Peter. And when possible, rhyme all the time. Turn fat Frank into Frank the tank, Jack who talks smack, Lea, too bad you can’t see-uh. The only risk you run is letting the attribute outweigh itself, leaving you with a horrible adjective in your mouth, and still no name.
The last is the most obvious: repeat the name during conversation and several times in your head; repetition is the cornerstone of this argument, cornerstone of this argument. The advice is to repeat the name aloud when meeting someone so as to remember it later, “Hi, Bob. Nice to meet you, Bob. Hey, Bob, do you like ice cream? Boy I sure do, Bob. Bob, so is that short for anything, Bob? Well Bob, it was nice to meet you, Bob.” Dramatization? Yes. But when someone keeps repeating my name in conversation, they are telling me without telling me that they are about to forget my name, and have to hold onto it so tight that it must be repeated. It is proof, again, that the name is on its way down the tube of lost forever.
It is a call to arms then, which we must explicitly verbalize. In other words, tap the left side of your brain, right above your ear, and tell it to wake the hell up. Tell your Hippocampus that forgetting people’s names is unacceptable. Tell it you’ve tried name association games, mnemonic devices, and even repetition. I did, and it still won’t listen. So then, we all must do this together, in unison, like we’re living on the set of Network: stand on chairs and yell out windows and tell the world, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” For the sake of big business, for the sake of animal rights, child abuse, globalization, religious fundamentalism—for the sake of the kids. Without out names we’re just social accidents waiting to happen.