A few months ago, I showed up to my local footy grounds ready to kick a ball around for my social sports team.
I’ve been playing in the same team (the Minty Pickles) for years, and I’m good friends with most of my teammates. But this week there was an unfamiliar face.
As we jogged onto the pitch, I took the chance to introduce myself.
“Hey! I’m not sure we’ve met. I’m Sally.”
“I know …” said my teammate, looking confused. “You gave me a lift last week.”
Welcome to the story of my life.
I have intense difficulty recognising and remembering people that I have no excuse to forget. I’m constantly blanking people on the street, or making awkward small talk and then shamefully shrugging when my friend asks: “Who was that?”.
It’s awkward, embarrassing, and makes me paranoid about coming across as rude or disinterested.
For a while, I thought I might have prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. But nope. I’ve done online tests and scored only slightly below average for my ability to recognise faces in photos, and I have no trouble recognising close friends and loved ones. But when I meet someone new? People’s faces slip out of my brain like skittles down a kids slide.
Meeting new people is really important to me, so why is my memory so bad? Is it possible to improve your ability to recognise people? And even better, to remember who they are, how you know them, and achieve the holy grail: recalling their name?
Daniel Kilov is a memory coach and athlete, as well as a researcher and PhD candidate at the Australian National University. He says that the way we conceptualise our memory — as though we have one big muscle that’s either strong or weak — tends to obscure the way our brain actually works.
“We tend to talk about memory as though it’s one kind of monolithic thing, but in fact there are all kinds of different processes that have to arise in order for us to remember something correctly and successfully,” he says.
The first of these processes is mindfulness. You have to be paying conscious attention to the thing you want to remember.
To make his point, Mr Kilov poses a question:
“On the Australian one dollar coin, which way does the Queen’s head face — to the left or to the right?”
I’ve been looking at the Queen’s shiny profile my whole life, but I can’t for the life of me bring up a mental image that will give me the answer. I’m stumped. It’s a familiar feeling.
“The reason you don’t remember is perfectly reasonable: you weren’t paying attention. And I think this is fairly common,” Me Kilov says.
“Often when I’m being introduced to someone I’m kind of mentally rehearsing introducing myself because I’m worried about stumbling over my own name — but because I’m doing this I’m not focusing.”
I’m definitely guilty of this, especially in a group setting.
If there’s lots of people around, or I’m focused on an activity (like playing sport, or driving), I’ll often be distracted, and forget to take a few moments to deliberately and intentionally memorise someone.
But how do you consciously go about remembering a face? Daniel Kilov suggests narrowing it down to a few features. Focus on things that won’t change, like tiny ears or a round chin, and mentally exaggerate those features when you first meet them.
“It’s sometimes very easy to recognise people that are drawn in caricature, even though the caricature is less accurate than seeing someone’s photo,” he says.
“They exaggerate these elements that stand out to us the most about a person’s appearance.
“Those are the kinds of things that are useful to focus on — think like a caricaturist!”
Once you’ve been mindful and noticed some distinctive things about the person, it’s time for the next step — encoding that memory in a way that is “sticky to the brain”.
Memory experts are great at this, and have all kinds of techniques for helping memories ‘stick’. There’s plenty of tricks you can learn, like thinking of a rhyme (‘Leyla’ rhymes with ‘sailor’) and then creating a visual image (Leyla with Popeye peeking out of her tiny ear). But the important thing is making a vivid association — which Mr Kilov says “is the language of memory”.
Of course, some people get lots of practice at this. A few weeks ago, I stopped past an unfamiliar coffee shop to grab a takeaway. After I put in my order, the barista said:
I was taken aback. I’d never been to this cafe. But I looked closer and realised this was my old barista, from a different cafe I used to frequent several years ago. I was impressed — and asked how many customers he still remembered.
“I couldn’t put an exact number on it, but I can still recall people I served in 2014,” he says.
“Obviously the more fresh the customer is in my memory, the easier it is to remember. I’m certain the number would exceed 200 though, if I had to guess.”
My ex-barista agrees with Mr Kilov when it comes to finding distinctive features about people, but he prefers looking for other qualities:
“The character of the person is definitely something that will stick out when I serve them and really accounts for how memorable they are,” he says.
“My tips? If the intention is to remember someone, I wouldn’t rely purely on the name and face. Create a memory of a conversation that will stand out.”
My ex-barista went on to ask whether I was working on new music — recalling a conversation we’d had in 2019.
This is the last part of recognising people — accurate, detailed recall. There’s no point memorising someone’s name if you can’t pull that memory up quickly, and there’s nothing more annoying than the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon, as Mr Kilov calls it.
One way to avoid this is to have a consistent memory strategy that you regularly use, like a well-ordered filing cabinet.
For memory athletes, this might involve building an ‘internal database’ of visual images you can associate with people. For baristas, it might mean mentally cross-referencing everyone you meet with their small talk and coffee order.
So I’ve learnt some hot tips. Be focused and mindful, create strong associations, and use the same techniques consistently.
After a few minutes, my ex-barista hands me a small latte.
“Thanks! It’s Sam, isn’t it?”
I feel like I’ve just pulled a rabbit out of a hat. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.
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