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I Know We Met But…

Erin Thomassen | Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Why it’s so hard to forget a face and so easy to forget a name

You meet the cute boy and shake his hand. His wavy hair and deep brown eyes are ingrained in your memory. The next time you see him, you wave your hand excitedly in his direction before you realize that – crap – you don’t remember his name.

Why is it almost impossible to forget a face yet so easy to forget a name? It could be that college students and people in general are innately shallow and care more about someone’s appearance than their name. It could be that every individual has a different face, whereas many people share the same name. Or it could be that the ancient teachers Cicero and Quintilianus were right, that human memories recall images more easily than they recall words. We want to make Notre Dame proud, so we’ll go with the latter.

Cicero, Quintilianus and other scholars realized how much easier it was to recall images than words, so they developed the method of memory palaces to remember ideas and words. In order to memorize an idea, they suggested developing an image for that idea and placing it within a certain room in a house that the student knows well. Then, during a speech, students would walk through the location in their imagination and see the image in the room in which they placed it. This way, they were able to recall the steps of the speech as they took steps through the house. 

How can this idea translate to the modern problem of recalling that cute boy or girl’s name and place of origin?

Try conjuring up an image of him or her that corresponds with the words you have to remember, such as Hanna with a henna tattoo of Texas stamped on her forehead. Coming from Texas, though, she may already have one of those. 

If you don’t master the technique, don’t cry too much. It’s always fun to stick your nose in the air and say,”Sorry, what’s your name again?” Then you can pretend you haven’t been dreaming about him during the past three calculus classes. 

Warning: Don’t get too proud when you actually remember where someone is from. They may run the other way if you yell, “I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE.”

Contact Erin Thomassen at ethomass@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those or The Observer.