The Art of Memory

by Site Author

During my third year of graduate school, I worked as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate statistics class. The class met twice a week with the instructor. I would sit in the back of the classroom, taking notes and grading the students’ homework. Then, on Fridays, I would give a review lecture, going through the week’s material.

I took that first teaching gig very seriously. I dressed up for my review lectures, and put together notes for the students. I tried to tell jokes, to get the students to laugh. I cared.

And so it was devastating when, at the end of the semester, the students gave me horrible ratings. The university had each undergraduate rate their instructors and their teaching assistants. The students gave me an average rating of 2 out of 5, which was lower than nearly any other teaching assistant in my program.

I remember sitting down in my shabby graduate-student office, reading through the students’ evaluations, and feeling terrible. Why didn’t they like me? What did I do wrong?

I resolved to do better. And so I came up with a list of things to try the next time I taught. That list ended up serving me well. The next year, I was assigned as a teaching assistant to a different class, and the students gave me much higher ratings. Eventually, I even won a teaching award, an award that remains on my CV to this day.

What did I do differently the second time around? There were a lot of little teaching tricks that made me more effective in the classroom. But one trick applies anywhere: I memorized the students’ names.

Calling people by their name is the easiest way to win them over. As Dale Carnegie famously put it, “a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

But how do you actually remember names? Joshua Foer includes some instructions in his book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Early on in the book, he asks a memory expert how to memorize names.

“The trick is actually deceptively simple,” he said. “It is always to associate the sound of a person’s name with something you can clearly imagine. It’s all about creating a vivid image in your mind that anchors your visual memory of the person’s face to a visual memory connected to the person’s name. When you need to reach back and remember the person’s name at some later date, the image you created will simply pop back into your mind… So, hmm, you said your name was Josh Foer, eh?” He raised an eyebrow and gave his chin a melodramatic stroke. “Well, I’d imagine you joshing me where we first met, outside the competition hall, and I’d imagine myself breaking into four pieces in response. Four/Foer, get it? That little image is more entertaining—to me at least,—than your mere name, and should stick nicely in the mind.”

The basic principle here applies to many other memorization techniques. The human brain retains images much more readily than words. And so the most effective way to memorize words is to convert them into images. For instance, in Ancient Greece, public speakers would memorize a speech by remembering a series of images, each of which represented one key point in the speech.

Memorization techniques are all surprisingly easy to learn. The hard part—and this is a skill that one can acquire—is to quickly convert words into memorable images. In that sense, memorization is really an exercise in creativity.

The art of memory used to be much more important than it is now. A century ago, scholars were expected to commit texts to memory. But cheap paper, teleprompters, and computers have all but replaced memorization. Still, remembering names is one little area where the ancient art of memory still matters.