MARY HARRIS: This is Only Human from WNYC. I’m Mary Harris. And alright everyone - it’s Day 4 of Listen Up! Only Human’s quest to make you a better listener.
Today’s challenge is called Memorize This. I’m going to start... by taking you inside my nightmare. OK, nightmare may be too strong a word. But I bet you’ve been here. I’m walking into an event, or a meeting, or a dinner party… And I know no one. Which means all night long, I’m guaranteed to be doing this:
MH: I’m sorry, what did you say your name was? Hi, yes, remind me of your name again? Could you tell me your name again? I’m so sorry -- it’s just slipped my mind.
MH: Today’s challenge will help you master THAT situation. We’re going to teach you how NOT to be the jerk who can’t remember the name of the person he met ten minutes ago. Our guide today? Is Joshua Foer.
JF: I’m Joshua Foer, I’m a science journalist, and I’m the author of Moonwalking with Einstein.
MH: That book is about how he set out to improve his memory and then — sort of by accident — won the USA Memory Championship, where the events include things like memorizing a shuffled deck of cards. When I called him up, I told him about my nightmare.
MH: So, I’m getting ready to go meet a bunch of people...
MH: I tell him about the crowded room, the people I don’t know… What would he do?
JF: This happens to be one of the skills that a memory champion specifically works on, because one of the events in the U.S. memory championship and the World Memory Championship is called “Names and Faces.” And they give you a bunch of photographic headshots, with first and last names attached to them, and you have to memorize the names. So that’s like a problem that memory champions are all familiar with. And obviously we’re all familiar with it because it’s...it is the dreaded thing that you have to deal with.
MH: I feel like I’m having a panic attack just hearing about it.
MH: Just cause I’m like, I would never be able to do that.
JF: It actually is not that complicated.
MH: This didn’t sound like it could possibly be true. But okay, let’s hear it: How do you memorize a bunch of names and faces fast enough to win a major competition?
JF: So let’s say you meet somebody named Mike, right? You meet a “Mike” at a party. The first thing you do is you figure out what is distinctive about this person’s physical presence. Like what about this person is gonna be the thing that reminds me of Mike? And let’s say Mike has a beard. How am I gonna remember this guy’s name is Mike? The first thing I do, is I pay attention to his name when he introduces himself. The second thing you do is you gotta figure out some sort of association between the person’s face, their presence, and their name. So if I see Mike, who’s got this scraggly beard, I’m gonna take a second to — you can do it by closing your eyes, or if you get good you can do it without closing your eyes — picture this guy with a scraggly beard, but have a bunch of microphones dangling from his beard.
JF: Right, you’ve got a beard full of mics. And that’s such a weird image that — you’ve never seen that before. And if you can create a vivid image of that in your mind’s eye, hopefully you see him, you see the beard. And you’ve got something that hooks him, the person in front of you, to his name, Mike.
MH: So, it does sound kind of easy, right? But I did have a question.
MH: What if someone’s name isn’t a word?
JF: Yeah, I know that’s hard. [laughs]
MH: It’s hard -- but he has a trick for it. And you want to pay attention here. Because this is where Joshua Foer gives the secret for mastering the meet and greet. And also, the secret for acing today’s challenge. First, we had to settle on that name that isn’t a word...
JF: How bout, like, Juanita?
MH: Sure, Juanita, go
JF: Right, you meet a Juanita. Like, ok so this is actually the skill that you are training, ok? You’re not training your memory, you’re training your ability to come up with a crazy image for “Juanita”. And so I would like — just riffing here — so I’m breaking it up. One-eat. So maybe it’s like I’m imagining a big number “1” eating this woman’s head.
JF: And then like burping.
MH: So the weirder the better?
JF: Oh, weirdness is essential. And this goes back to the earliest memory treatises. They write about this, 2,000 years ago, in classical Latin: if you want to make something memorable, you have to make it weird. And the art of this, the art of these memory techniques, is in figuring out weird associations. Because if you can make them weird, then they’re unique. And if they’re unique, then they don’t have anything else to compete with in your memory, which makes them more likely to stick around.
MH: So that’s how you do it. You think about the person’s name, and you create a crazy mental image that helps it stick with you.
And that’s today’s challenge. Go to onlyhuman.org and take our test. It mimics the scenario that Joshua Foer just laid out. It gives you a bunch of names and faces, so that you can practice — and then test yourself.
MH: Do you still do this, when you’re meeting new people?
JF: [sighs] Oh man, this is the bane of my existence now, because now when I forget somebody’s name it’s like, “You forgot my name!? You’re the U.S. memory champion! How could you do that?”
MH: He still forgets because of course — a memory trick isn’t a total fix. Using it still takes time and energy and focus.
JF: What’s the trick to remembering better in everyday life? It’s paying better attention. Most of the time, like, we don’t remember things cause we just don’t care.
JF: Ouch, yeah.
MH: I have to say, you’re kind of shattering our hopes that you would have the secret.
JF: I — listen — I’m sure there are people you could have on this show who could tell you that they have the secret. They would be full of it. I don’t think there’s a great secret except work, working at it, you know? Like the… truly, all of these memory techniques that I’ve learned, and they’re incredible — the reason that they work is because they fundamentally make you work. They force you to pay attention, they force you to make information meaningful, but they do it in an artificial way. But, like, real — real memories in real life requires effort, requires investing yourself in whatever it is that you’re learning. And there’s just no way around that.
MH: So listener friends: take our test at onlyhuman.org/listenup. And then tell us how you do. Give us a call and share the weirdest mental image you come up with to remember a name. We’re at (803) 820-WNYC. Or you can send a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And also, don’t be so hard on yourselves the next time you see someone you’ve met before and you can’t … for the life of you … connect that face with a name. It happens to memory champion Josh Foer. It happens to everyone.
I’m Mary Harris and this is Only Human. We’ll be back tomorrow with Day 5 — the final day! — of our listening week.