Drawing for Memory

One of my most annoying shortcomings is that I have a terrible head for names. The moment someone is introduced to me, I’ll say something to the effect of “Very happy to meet you,” and then focus almost immediately on some detail of his or her physical appearance — a hairdo, or a singular quality of the face, or some interesting wardrobe minutiae. Almost always, this leads me to distraction, such that the person’s name never fully registers; in fact, it usually disappears from my memory immediately, like a swipe of rubbing alcohol evaporating tracelessly on the skin.

This is bad. It’s a horrible practice, especially for someone, like me, who works in a large company, where I’m meeting new co-workers all the time, as many as three or four a week. The problem is compounded by the fact that I might meet a colleague for the first time today and not see that person again for weeks or even months… Usually not until some inopportune moment, when it becomes achingly inconvenient to be so forgetful. Like waiting for an elevator together, or finding myself face-to-face with that person in a small meeting; times when not addressing a person by first name is conspicuous and awkward. As often as not, the victim of my interpersonal amnesia demonstrates that, unlike me, he or she has courtesy, grace and mental stamina enough to remember my name. Makes me feel like an ass.

The Resistance of Memory

I’ve tried a few different mental tricks to defuse this, such as repeating each new acquaintance’s name several times to myself as we meet, or using his or her name almost immediately, or creating an associative mnemonic. But for whatever reason, these methods don’t work that well. I often forget to use the trick at all, or I fail to realize that the person’s name has failed to register at all until later, when it’s too late to ask again without embarrassment.

About a year ago, I began doodling little sketches of newly acquainted colleagues in my notebook (I attend lots of meetings) in the hopes of capturing immediately some memorable qualities that can be referenced later. As it turns out, this is a pretty effective way of remembering who’s who, provided I get some reasonable likeness of the person down. I use whatever amount of draughting skill I can muster in these drawings, but I’m not shooting for carnival-quality caricatures that can be hung on the wall of a basement bar. Rather, I’m just going for an impression, just enough emphasis on distinguishing characteristics to help my power of recall at a later date.

Caveat Caricaturist

There’s two tricks to this: first, you’ve got to use the same notebook nearly every day. At the start of the new year, for instance, I switched to a brand new notebook for a fresh start, and immediately felt adrift without my visual crib notes. For a while I had to carry both last year’s and this year’s notebooks with me, sort of like that guy who can’t go anywhere without his Dungeon Master’s Guide. So if you can’t hang onto a single note-taking book without losing it, this technique will do you little good.

Losing a notebook with these kinds of doodles is ill-advised, as well, by caveat number two: caricatures can be deadly. Just as there are many people who have an aversion to photographs, many others don’t take kindly to superficial, reductive distillations of physical appearance on paper. A drawing that emphasizes some prominent feature for the benefit of memory can be very offensive to the subject, should he or she ever get a look at it — in spite of the fact that I mean no harm whatsoever as I create them. This is part of the reason why I try to draw these fairly small, and as quickly as possible, avoiding the appearance of careful laboring over the likenesses. Also, I never, ever show them to anyone; the potential embarrassment is too great. That is, unless I remove the names to protect the innocent, as I’m doing here.

  1. I suffer from the same affliction and usually forget the persons name before our handshake is done.

    Your solution sounds good but how do you lookup the person’s likeness in your notebook?

  2. I just draw them in the margins, but what I should really do is just dedicate a couple of pages in the back of the book to a gallery of caricatures. Like an index, kinda, of the people I work with.

  3. Don’t feel too bad about it – I also lack this “facial memory” – don’t have it at all. Unless I’m dealing with someone I get to see every day or every other week, I have a hard time trying to remember who is this person that is greeting me so effusively that sure we have met sometime before yet can’t remember what was her name. Until I finally have to ask, to my total chagrin but politely, what was her name due to my volatile memory. Makes me jealous of those that can recall every person’s detail down to their exact hair color.

    The cartoon approach is something I hadn’t thought of, although I may have tried it at some time or another but not as a constant habit. At the very least it could give me an excuse to draw more often.

  4. I’m not alone….

    It’s like reading my personal thoughts… I feel so ashamed each time I struggle to remember a name.
    I will certainly give your technique a try. I doodle a lot during meetings (which sometimes makes me feel guilty), so this is another good excuse.

  5. Nice idea. Does this help you though?

    Do you need to rely on the drawings, or can you subsequently recall those pictures an associate them with names.

    Since you’re a visual person, here’s one tip I’ve sometimes found useful. When you meet someone new, create a picture of story in your head of them standing with other people you know with the same name. Eventually, you’ll end up with interesting scenes of Johns, Marys and Dianes. Also, using famous people can help if you don’t know anyone with that name, or just want to make the scene more interesting. Since you’re just remembering the picture, you don’t explicitly have to remember their name, because you already know your friends names. 🙂

  6. I know exactly what you mean, sometimes I have enough trouble remembering my own name. So I include it in everything, like my website, email, t-shirt, etc.

    I’ve found that repeating the name of a new acquaintance over and over on meeting them tends to give them the wrong impression… maybe I shouldn’t do it out loud? Whatever, it doesn’t work anyway.

    Maybe life be would be easier if everybody had their names on their clothing?? But that would seriously confuse commercial branding. Damn, I thought I had the solution there for a moment.

  7. This is an excellent idea. I have the same problem and working in a huge public high school as the only German/French teacher, it’s hard to remember all the other faculty that I don’t see very often. I’m going to try this in August!

  8. I think we all have the same sort of affliction, I will remember a face forever, even people I see on the train, but as for names they’re gone immediately. As a strange coincidence, I saw this online today on Digg it’s an interesting study about how faces and names are SUPPOSED to look alike and when they don’t, we can’t remember them. It’s possible that this could be my problem, but somehow I doubt it.

  9. I have the same problem, and I know two solutions.

    1) Before you forget, use the old Dale Carnegie-style technique of merely saying their name in conversation as soon as you hear it, or as soon as possible after hearing it. “Great to meet you, Jack.” is the classic method.

    2) When you inevitably forget, don’t try to be slick: Just say “Hey, my brain is useless and I’ve forgotten your name. Can you repeat it? I don’t want to forget it.” People are afraid of insulting someone by forgetting their name, but everyone understands that this happens all the time. It’s worse to fudge and pretend awkwardly. Just ask.

  10. I’m thinking that the benefit that Khoi gets from the sketches is less a reference (though placing them in the margins of associated notes is a great idea), and more of a study. If any of us were to sit and do a 5 minute sketch of someone, we are a lot more likely to remember their name due to that intense 5 minutes of focus on the person, their face and their name.

    You make nifty little caricatures there, Khoi. Mine would all end up looking like Charlie Brown or Peppermint Patty.

  11. I have this same problem too. After a little searching, I found this interesting book that talks about this among other memory issues.

  12. I thought I was alone when it comes to remembering names. I’ve had moments where I will ask a person what their name is, only to find myself asking again an hour later.

    I guess there’s no hope… I can’t draw.

  13. Khoi, you crack me up.

    I’m imagining you hurriedly flipping through your sketches to find the name of the woman from, say, Marketing with the big nose. Instead of getting it right, you end up calling her by the name of every other large-nosed person at the company. “HelenЁ Uh CherylЁ Suzy, SuzyЁ right?”

    Larry David could work magic with this.

  14. I think the guy in the lower right hand corner resembles me back when I used to have hair. Though I have pupils in my eyes. :-]

    I’m also terrible with names. Sometimes I just call people, “Dave” or “Melissa” and say, “I know that’s not your name, but that’s the name I have stuck in my head, I’m sorry, please tell me your real name again for the sixth time.”

    Probably explains why they never send me to meet with new clients.

  15. I have the same problem and I do not remember numbers as well.
    So you are defenately not alone, at least you are trying to do something about it and that matters.
    I might try your solution.

  16. Me too, me too, me too.

    After failing art history once in college I started sketching the slides as the professor talked about them. After class I’d go through my notes with the text book and fill in whatever I missed while I was drawing. Not only did the act of studying the works while sketching help me remember contectually, I also ended up with a mean study guide.

    Of course I’ve forgotten it all now…

  17. Another way of how this might work is that you’re memory fails at those moments and just blacks out. The names are most likely to wonder around somewhere in you’re memory but when you really really need them your brain won’t link you to them. Basically the same principle as students blacking out on an exam. The only way to know if this is the case is see if you’ll just remember someones name when a situation isn’t that embaresing. If the name pops into your head when the presure of really needing to know it is absend then that’s something you could train yourself in and work around it.

  18. I’ve always considered myself to have a very low “Social Memory’ in general. On top of not remembering names very well I also totally blank on conversations. I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing what “sounds like me” when people bring up past conversations. Generally though I reserve the right to keep my opinion fresh at any given moment.

    My brain has just learned that small-talk isn’t important enough to keep at-the-ready. It does suck for names though, I end up using all the basic tricks to get someone else to spurt it out, or just get by without. You can go a long way in a conversation without using the persons name.

    I blame having to keep entire websites-worth of documents organized in my head.

  19. Khoi, your sketches are cool, and if they work for you they work. Kind of a hipster-pda facial-recognition device.

    This article from WIRED addresses some of the face-forget memes brought up by others. This is a great topic, and glad you raised it.

  20. Crafty, playful and elegant, all things I’ve come to expect of you and your work. Though, pace Sam Sullivan above, they sound less like a mnemonic strategy and more like an actual facial directory.

  21. You are like my east coast Asian twin, Khoi. I am also awful with names but flawless with faces. I remember faces from random encounters 20 years ago even… it’s scary.

    There is a guy at ESPN whose ability to remember names was the best I’ve ever seen. When he visited our office in Seattle, he knew everyone by name, even interns who he’d only met once. I asked him what his secret was and he said “It’s simple. Whoever I meet, I consider it my *responsibility* to remember their name.”

    That’s just something I never consciously do, and I keep meaning to try it. If it works for him, it’s gotta work for some others.

  22. I think you actually D O N ‘T really W A N T to remember all those N A M E S of all those P E O P L E you meet.
    It’s like setting a bookmark for every page you ever visited. pointless.
    My trick is: I ask myself a filterquestion, without even listening to the primary utterance of a new person’s name, “Do I actually want to remember this name, this person, this first time?”. If you do, you will. But usually: you won’t, so: you didn’t.

  23. hmm was wondering what if the time you were drawing the person he/she was having long hair and the next time you guys meet again the hair has been snipped short? 🙂

    anyway really great idea for visual-type people, and makes for good sketching practise too

  24. Khoi – I feel your pain on this and would make a further suggestion. Pick up a copy of The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. Ricci was a Jesuit missionary who went to China in 1583. To prove that westerners were superior he taught a kind of memory “trick”. It’s rather involved but in short, the person builds a memory palace in their mind. The purpose of this mental structure was to provide storage for those things they wished to remember. Need to recall the name of that guy on the 12th floor who says hi to you every morning? Easy, you put his name in the top right drawer of the cabinet that sits in the main room of the palace. As I say there is more to it than this but it gives you a general idea. It must have worked for Ricci because the Chinese were so blown away by how well this worked that they wanted to know all about the religion that made such a thing possible. Sneaky missionaries….

  25. I have a similar problem. Interestingly, I had already thought of the sketching idea on my own. During my internship last summer, I sketched the faces of many of the people I worked with.

    This helped me remember, and it was a useful reference. However, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone else doing the same thing. Looks like great minds think alike! Thanks for the tip; I’ll do even more sketching now.

  26. Great tip. I used to doodle a lot on breaks at various factory jobs during summers between college classes… usually doodled people in lunch rooms without them being aware of it. I was just the shy, quite kid. This stuff can get you in to trouble, but is a good memory aide… just make sure that you actually talk to them and stuff since it can be very awkward if someone sees you drawing them and you don’t know them… happened to me more than a few times over the years. I don’t doodle much anymore, but need to get back in to it.

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