Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It

Chapter XI

How to Remember Names

The phase of memory connected with the remembrance or recollection of names probably is of greater interest to the majority of persons than are any of the associated phases of the subject. On all hands are to be found people who are embarassed by their failure to recall the name of some one whom they feel they know, but whose name has escaped them. This failure to remember the names of persons undoubtedly interferes with the business and professional success of many persons; and, on the other hand, the ability to recall names readily has aided many persons in the struggle for success. It would seem that there are a greater number of persons deficient in this phase of memory than in any other. As Holbrook has said: “The memory of names is a subject with which most persons must have a more than passing interest…. The number of persons who never or rarely forget a name is exceedingly small, the number of those who have a poor memory for them is very large. The reason for this is partly a defect of mental development and partly a matter of habit. In either case it may be overcome by effort…. I have satisfied myself by experience and observation that a memory for names may be increased not only two, _but a hundredfold_.”

You will find that the majority of successful men have been able to recall the faces and names of those with whom they came in contact, and it is an interesting subject for speculation as to just how much of their success was due to this faculty. Socrates is said to have easily remembered the names of all of his students, and his classes numbered thousands in the course of a year. Xenophon is said to have known the name of every one of his soldiers, which faculty was shared by Washington and Napoleon, also. Trajan is said to have known the names of all the Praetorian Guards, numbering about 12,000. Pericles knew the face and name of every one of the citizens of Athens. Cineas is said to have known the names of all the citizens of Rome. Themistocles knew the names of 20,000 Athenians. Lucius Scipio could call by name every citizen of Rome. John Wesley could recall the names of thousands of persons whom he had met in his travels. Henry Clay was specially developed in this phase of memory, and there was a tradition among his followers that he remembered every one whom he met. Blaine had a similar reputation.

There have been many theories advanced, and explanations offered to account for the fact that the recollection of names is far more difficult than any other form of the activities of the memory. We shall not take up your time in going over these theories, but shall proceed upon the theory now generally accepted by the best authorities; i.e. that the difficulty in the recollection of names is caused by the fact that names in themselves are _uninteresting_ and therefore do not attract or hold the attention as do other objects presented to the mind. There is of course to be remembered the fact that sound impressions are apt to be more difficult of recollection than sight impressions, but the lack of interesting qualities in names is believed to be the principal obstacle and difficulty. Fuller says of this matter: “A proper noun, or name, when considered independently of accidental features of coincidence with something that is familiar, _doesn’t mean anything_; for this reason a mental picture of it is not easily formed, which accounts for the fact that the primitive, tedious way of rote, or repetition, is that ordinarily employed to impress a proper noun on the memory, while a common noun, being represented by some object having shape, or appearance, in the physical or mental perception, can thus be _seen or imagined_: in other words _a mental image_ of it can be formed and the _name_ identified afterwards, through associating it with this mental image.” We think that the case is fully stated in this quotation.

But in spite of this difficulty, persons have and can greatly improve their memory of names. Many who were originally very deficient in this respect have not only improved the faculty far beyond its former condition, but have also developed exceptional ability in this special phase of memory so that they became noted for their unfailing recollection of the names of those with whom they came in contact.

Perhaps the best way to impress upon you the various methods that may be used for this purpose would be to relate to you the actual experience of a gentleman employed in a bank in one of the large cities of this country, who made a close study of the subject and developed himself far beyond the ordinary. Starting with a remarkably poor memory for names, he is now known to his associates as “the man who never forgets a name.” This gentleman first took a number of “courses” in secret “methods” of developing the memory; but after thus spending much money he expressed his disgust with the whole idea of artificial memory training. He then started in to study the subject from the point-of-view of The New Psychology, putting into effect all of the tested principles, and improving upon some of their details. We have had a number of conversations with this gentleman, and have found that his experience confirms many of our own ideas and theories, and the fact that he has demonstrated the correctness of the principles to such a remarkable degree renders his case one worthy of being stated in the direction of affording a guide and “method” for others who wish to develop their memory of names.

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