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Some “poor memory” might just reflect disinterest

June 20, 2012
Courtesy of Kansas State University
and World Science staff

Most of us have ex­pe­ri­enced it. You meet some­one, only to for­get his or her name with­in sec­onds. You rack your brain, but can’t seem to even come up with the first let­ter. Then you get frus­trat­ed and think, “Why is it so hard for me to re­mem­ber names?”

You may think it’s just how you were born, but that’s not the case, ac­cord­ing to Kan­sas State Uni­vers­ity psy­chol­o­gist Rich­ard Har­ris. He says it’s not nec­es­sarily your brain’s abil­ity that de­ter­mines how well you can re­mem­ber names, but rath­er your lev­el of in­ter­est.

“Some peo­ple, per­haps those who are more so­cially aware, are just more in­ter­ested in peo­ple, more in­ter­ested in rela­t­ion­ships,” Har­ris said. “They would be more mo­ti­vat­ed to re­mem­ber some­body’s name.” This goes for peo­ple in pro­fes­sions like pol­i­tics or teach­ing where know­ing names is ben­e­fi­cial. But just be­cause some­one can’t re­mem­ber names does­n’t mean they have a bad mem­o­ry, he added.

“Al­most eve­ry­body has a very good mem­o­ry for some­thing,” Har­ris said.

The key to a good mem­o­ry is your lev­el of in­ter­est, he said. The more in­ter­est you show in a top­ic, the more likely it will im­print it­self on your brain. If it is a top­ic you en­joy, then it won’t seem like you are us­ing your mem­o­ry.

For ex­am­ple, Har­ris said a few years ago some stu­dents were play­ing a ge­og­ra­phy game in his of­fice. He started to join in nam­ing coun­tries and their cap­i­tals. Soon, the stu­dents were amazed by his knowl­edge, al­though Har­ris did­n’t un­der­stand why. Then it dawned on him that his vast knowl­edge of cap­i­tals did­n’t come from mem­o­riz­ing them from a map, but rath­er from his love of stamps and learn­ing their where­a­bouts.

“I learn­ed a lot of geo­graph­i­cal knowl­edge with­out really study­ing,” he said.

Har­ris said this al­so ex­plains why some things seem so hard to re­mem­ber—they may be hard to un­der­stand or not of in­ter­est to some peo­ple, such as re­mem­bering names.

Har­ris said there are strate­gies for train­ing your mem­o­ry, in­clud­ing us­ing a mne­mon­ic de­vice. “If some­body’s last name is Hefty and you no­tice they’re left-hand­ed, you could re­mem­ber lefty Hefty,” he said. An­oth­er strat­e­gy is to use the per­son’s name while you talk to them—al­though the best strat­e­gy is simply to show more in­ter­est in the peo­ple you meet, he said.


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Most of us have experienced it. You meet someone, only to forget his or her name within seconds. You rack your brain, but can’t seem to even come up with the first letter. Then you get frustrated and think, “Why is it so hard for me to remember names?” You may think it’s just how you were born, but that’s not the case, according to Kansas State University psychologist Richard Harris. He said it’s not necessarily your brain’s ability that determines how well you can remember names, but rather your level of interest. “Some people, perhaps those who are more socially aware, are just more interested in people, more interested in relationships,” Harris said. “They would be more motivated to remember somebody’s name.” This goes for people in professions like politics or teaching where knowing names is beneficial. But just because someone can’t remember names doesn’t mean they have a bad memory, he added. “Almost everybody has a very good memory for something,” Harris said. The key to a good memory is your level of interest, he said. The more interest you show in a topic, the more likely it will imprint itself on your brain. If it is a topic you enjoy, then it won’t seem like you are using your memory. For example, Harris said a few years ago some students were playing a geography game in his office. He started to join in naming countries and their capitals. Soon, the students were amazed by his knowledge, although Harris didn’t understand why. Then it dawned on him that his vast knowledge of capitals didn’t come from memorizing them from a map, but rather from his love of stamps and learning their whereabouts. “I learned a lot of geographical knowledge without really studying,” he said. Harris said this also explains why some things seem so hard to remember—they may be hard to understand or not of interest to some people, such as remembering names. Harris said there are strategies for training your memory, including using a mnemonic device. “If somebody’s last name is Hefty and you notice they’re left-handed, you could remember lefty Hefty,” he said. Another strategy is to use the person’s name while you talk to them—although the best strategy is simply to show more interest in the people you meet, he said.