How do you remember names? The usual memory advice focuses on mnemonics. For instance, if you met a Mrs. Stampson, you could imagine a big stamper (as in “Fragile”). Then you would pick a notable facial feature (usually unflattering), and visualize that stamper stamping away.
This method seems to work for some people. In The Memory Book, Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas brag about memorizing hundreds of names from an audience in a single performance. The book includes a long list of mnemonics for common names.
But lately I’ve been rethinking mnemonics. I’ve been exploring an old vein of memory books that emphasize interest and attention to what you want to remember. According to them, you can train your mind so that you don’t need mnemonics.
I found this old chapter on remembering names. Like me, you might relish how different it is from the standard memory advice. I haven’t even begun to test it myself, but there’s a lot here. The more you think about it, the more exciting the implications are.
The Basic Problem
First, we get the basic problem:
… names in themselves are uninteresting and therefore do not attract or hold the attention as do other objects presented to the mind.
The standard mnemonic solution relies on finding interesting mnemonics. Instead, we’re going to learn how to make the names themselves interesting.
The author describes the (hopefully real) case study of “Mr. X”, the would-be name expert.
(I’ve broken up the text and added headers. Some of the emphasis is mine too.)
Train Your Hearing
The gentleman, whom we shall call “Mr. X.,” decided that the first thing for him to do was to develop his faculty of receiving clear and distinct sound impressions. In doing this he followed the plan outlined by us in our chapter on “Training the Ear.” He persevered and practiced along these lines until his “hearing” became very acute.
He made a study of voices, until he could classify them and analyze their characteristics. Then he found that he could hear names in a manner before impossible to him. That is, instead of merely catching a vague sound of a name, he would hear it so clearly and distinctly that a firm registration would be obtained on the records of his memory.
Listen and Repeat
For the first time in his life names began to mean something to him. He paid attention to every name he heard, just as he did to every note he handled.
He would repeat a name to himself, after hearing it, and would thus strengthen the impression. If he came across an unusual name, he would write it down several times, at the first opportunity, thus obtaining the benefit of a double sense impression, adding eye impression to ear impression.
All this, of course, aroused his interest in the subject of names in general, which led him to the next step in his progress.
A Study (and Hobby) of Names
Mr. X. then began to study names, their origin, their peculiarities, their differences, points of resemblances, etc. He made a hobby of names, and evinced all the joy of a collector when he was able to stick the pin of attention through the specimen of a new and unfamiliar species of name.
He began to collect names, just as others collect beetles, stamps, coins, etc., and took quite a pride in his collection and in his knowledge of the subject. He read books on names, from the libraries, giving their origin, etc.
He had the Dickens’ delight in “queer” names, and would amuse his friends by relating the funny names he had seen on signs, and otherwise.
He took a small City Directory home with him, and would run over the pages in the evening, looking up new names, and classifying old ones into groups.
Wow! This guy is poring through the phone book, looking for new names to nibble. How would you organize names? We’ll find out in tomorrow’s post…
(A selection from: Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It
William Walker Atkinson, 1912
Headers, paragraph breaks, and some emphasis added.
Available at archive.org)