Ever since I was a child, I’ve struggled with memorizing names, dates, facts or anything to do with numbers. Repetition has never worked for me, nor has the old “Oh, just stare at it long enough, and you’ll get it” routine.
When it does work, I may remember the words or numbers, but I can’t connect them with whatever it is they’re associated with. Needless to say, this can make things like taking tests or meeting new people rather nerve wracking.
Over the years, I’ve begun to view my mind as something like a maze or house. If you can handle a little horror in your literature, the memory warehouse in Stephen King’s Dream Catcher is a pretty decent representation, as is Sherlock’s mind palace.
To use names as an example, when I first learn someone’s name, I try to spot something unique about them. Do they have distinctive eyes? Is their accent unique? Did their sense of humor stand out? Have they accomplished something noteworthy? I then try to associate the name with those traits.
Let’s use this gent as an example of how I do it.
|See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
Meet Lewis Latimer. I learned today that he invented the carbon filament in light bulbs, which replaced the original paper filament Edison first used. I had never heard of him before, probably because I’m not a light bulb aficionado.
To connect his name to his invention, I connect the fact his first and last name start with “L” with how the phrase “light bulb filament” is pronounced. When I say all three words together, the “L” sound is emphasized. Therefore when I think of the light bulb filament, I’ll think of the name Lewis Latimer.
The glasses he’s wearing in the picture add a visual element to it, as well. They have wire rims, which reminds me of how light bulb filaments look. Now, I can visualize a light bulb filament, mentally manipulate it into the image of Latimer’s glasses, build the rest of the picture around them in my mind and finally come up with his name.
I know it’s a roundabout way of doing things, but those associations are what cement the fact Lewis Latimer is the inventor of the modern incandescent light bulb filament in my mind. If I access that pattern of memories enough times, eventually the middle parts won’t be necessary every time I need to recall his name and that particular accomplishment.
For me, and others whose minds work like mine does, this process is actually faster than being forced to sit down, repeat the same thing again and again or than staring at a group of words until I’m supposed to “get it”. It helps me retain information more effectively, and when I’m allowed the extra time I need to process information, takes some of the stress out of test taking.
It also saves me the embarrassment, and my new acquaintances the insult, of forgetting their names. That does still happen when the initial encounter is too quick or there’s too much sensory input at the time, but once I get their personal patterns down in my head, the name will stick.
By the way, Latimer had quite an interesting life, and he is credited with a few other inventions, too. You can read more about him here.