Recently I was cleaning out my computer files for the New Year. As I reviewed the over thousands of contacts and emails, I thought to myself… “Do I really know all these people?”. I started going through the contacts and processing them in my mind. Yes, these weren’t just names, but real people and people in my life. I looked at their names and I knew every one of them. I could see their faces, remembered when I met them, where they work or why I know them, etc. This started me thinking about a topic I have wanted to write about for a long time. Why do so many people have difficulty remembering names? Sometimes… even recruiters!
I have a great memory. I remember directions, what people said at a specific time and place, what a person wore to an event, music, words, poetry, bible verses, history and many other fine things about being human. Why then can’t I remember a person’s name when I need it?
This happens to me more often than I’d like to admit. In fact, my colleague often makes fun of me over this. “You know Lisa, but you won’t remember her.” It’s funny; he is very good at remembering names, kind of scary good. What does he have that I don’t? Are our brains that different? I have learned that it’s all about context and association. See, it’s not that I don’t remember Lisa; I just need context to how I know who you are talking about at that moment. What is her name, why would I know her (a project, an event, etc)? Just throwing out “Lisa’s” name won’t tell me enough to pull it out of my cluttered name file in my brain. I probably know 30 Lisa’s we could be talking about.
I’ve taught myself to work around this glitch. How many of you do the “alphabet game?” You know, you start reciting the alphabet to help jog your memory…starting with “A” and going through the alphabet until the names pops up in your brain? “Thank goodness, I knew, I knew her name.” Sometimes this lack of recall can be embarrassing, the worst is when I’m attending a social event and someone I know (sometimes very well) comes up to say hello. It could even be my colleague I’ve been working with for years, and all of a sudden I can’t think of her name. Eventually it comes to me, but not quickly enough to make the introductions and provide the respect of knowing her name. Over the years, I learned to let the person introduce themselves to people. Yep, a few times I guessed incorrectly. My manners are good, but I guess my memory isn’t.
I know names are important. I know when someone remembers my name. I always take notice and am genuinely impressed when it happens. Just the other day, I was having lunch with some colleagues at a restaurant we hadn’t been in a while; the server came up and called us by name. Wow, she gets it. (Maybe I will ask her how she does it.) I bet she knows it helps her tips and she has figured out how to remember people’s names, even strangers. We all hear about classes to help people remember names, tricks and even sales 101 classes focus on these techniques. Names are personal. Names mean something, especially for the recruiting profession.
Occasionally, I find myself self-diagnosing this quandary, especially since it seems to be getting worse. I have thought about possible reasons for my quasi-disability, like it’s the normal journey of getting older, or maybe I have brain thing (e.g. tumor, Alzheimer’s), or that I have too much information in my brain and it’s over-stuffed. I have been specifically pondering the information- age thing a lot lately. As humans, our brains are forced to work differently than we did 1,000 years ago. Is the internet-era burning out my brain power? I can’t believe I remembered all those lines in my high school play. I don’t think I could do that today. There has to be something to this.
I’ve discussed this topic with other recruiting professionals often. To my surprise (and personal delight), many recruiters I know have this problem, too. Just last week, I was visiting a friend and fellow recruiting professional at her home with other friends. She shared with me a trick that helps her remember names. She keeps the names of her neighbors (and people that might knock on her door) listed behind the door. When someone comes to the door, if she can’t remember their name, she looks at her cheat sheet and… bam! Now I know why she is so good with names). See, it’s not just me. As I have heard many stories like this, I have an idea that this recall thing affects many, and is not limited to a specific demographic (age, profession, etc), but there is something we all have in common. My intellectual curiosity guided me to investigate this further.
So, what do recruiting professionals have that makes us different? If we deal with people all the time, why do some of us have difficulty recalling a person’s name when we need it? What do other have that allows them to become masters at it? I started researching this topic to help me and my fellow recruiting professionals know more. Here is some of what I found out.
- Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain. “People’s names are often the first edge to go ragged,” she adds. “But the names are not technically gone. For the most part, it’s a problem of retrieval, not storage.”
- Scientists recently declared that our ability to remember everyday things such as names and numbers starts to go at the tender age of 45. It’s normal and natural to forget things in life. (OK, age does matter).
- Our ability to remember things can also be afflicted by our lifestyles. One common problem may be stress
- Odds are it was a simple lapse in working memory, says Richard Restak, a clinical professor of neurology at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in Washington, DC. “We have a habit of mentally juggling ideas,” he says. “You keep tossing balls into the air so you can pull them out when you need them.” But when you’re tired or under pressure, it becomes much more difficult. The result: You draw blanks.
- A memory is a stored pattern of connections between neurons in the brain. There are about a hundred billion of those neurons, each of which can make perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 synaptic connections with other neurons, which makes a total of about five hundred trillion to a thousand trillion synapses in the average adult brain. By comparison there are only about 32 trillion bytes of information in the entire Library of Congress’s print collection. Every sensation we remember, every thought we think, alters the connections within that vast network. Synapses are strengthened or weakened or formed anew. Our physical substance changes. Indeed, it is always changing, every moment, even as we sleep. (OK. I don’t feel so bad now. How about you?)
- I found that memory expert and science journalist, Joshua Foer has a good handle on the topic of memory. Following are some excerpts I found interesting. You can watch the entire Interview here.
Before the age of books, it was a skill to remember things.
- There isn’t a difference in our brains (those that are good with memory and those that are not), but there something different about how these people’s brains operate. Those that are good a remembering things, actually activating different parts of the brain.
- You can train your brain to remember. There are techniques that you can use to help remember somebody’s name. For example, Method of Loci (The Memory Palace).
- You don’t remember things that you don’t pay attention to.
- We’re much better at recognizing whether I’ve seen that person before than remembering their name.
- Association Matters – The Baker/baker paradox explains why we have such difficulty remember names. It’s all about putting more associational hooks in whatever that piece of information is.
- The process of being able to have information stored externally whether in printed books or in photographs or on CD-ROMs or on the Internet changes our relationship to that information. It’s no longer important that we say “remember the works of Shakespeare,” because you know what I can pick Shakespeare up off my bookshelf and read it when I want to read him. But that wasn’t always the case and so it’s changed us.
In conclusion, many of us (especially recruiters) have enthusiastically embraced the technology age. In many ways, technology has changed our lives and made them easier. Because of this, it’s no longer important to remember things that are saved somewhere else. I guess that is why I can’t spell anymore either. Spell check has too made me a bad speller. Just think about it, if we need a name or number, we pull it up on our smart phone. If we need to remember a quote, we “Google it”. But the good news is that we can turn our brains back on. I also don’t think it’s just recruiters, it just so happens we all lead very busy lives, are often stressed, and are usually very tech savvy, which hurts and helps in several ways.
I think I’ll go memorize some Shakespeare and wake up that part of my brain again. “”What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.”
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