I am pretty bad at remembering names. I often forget the names of people I am introduced to at social gatherings. Someone had once told me that it might help if I repeated the name of the person (“When you are introduced to Bob, don’t just say ‘Pleased to meet you.’ Say, ‘Pleased to meet you, Bob’.”). But I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me, and I’ve faced some really awkward and even embarrassing situations.
At times I also forget the names of books I have read recently (Michael Connelly’s unforgettable crime fiction, The Poet), or the actor who played the lead role in a movie I have seen three times (Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon). There are moments when I don’t seem to recall the name of the band whose song has been going around in my head. The name is on the tip of my tongue, but for the life of me I cannot remember it. And don’t even mention birthdays and anniversaries. I would have lost many friends if I didn’t regularly update the calendar on my Mac and sync it with my iPhone.
I recently read a comment by an executive with Cogniciti, a company that will soon launch products to boost memory and cognitive abilities, that you cannot commit a phone number to memory just by repeating it 20 times. But if you repeat it at intervals of, say, “30 seconds, 90 seconds, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, you will never forget it.” They call it “spaced repetition”.
I don’t know if this trick will also work for names, but even if it does, I doubt if I can bring myself to say “Bob… Bob… Bob…” every few seconds or minutes. Not yet, at least.
Friends tell me that I consume too many sugar-free tablets with my innumerable cups of tea and coffee. But I do not know if my memory lapse is due to the use of the artificial sweetener. A Google search for my symptoms reveals that (a) I could be lazy and not using my brain enough, and (b) I am getting on in years. My wife alleges it’s a case of selective amnesia.
I have heard the phrase “use it or lose it”, and it makes sense that your brain, like your body, needs exercise, especially as you grow older.
My father was what I call “a puzzle junkie”. He would tackle one Sudoku every day, often do another on a hand-held console, and then throw some simple but interesting brain-teasers at us (“If 4% of the inhabitants of a town are one-legged and half of the others go barefoot, how many shoes are necessary?”). He did it as a matter of habit, lived till 85, and had no problem remembering the name of his distant grandniece and many landline phone numbers.
My father solved these puzzles on paper; I do it online—except for the crossword because I enjoy filling the squares in print. I do an occasional Sudoku, and though I don’t actively search for brain-teasers, if I stumble upon an engaging one, I give it a try because I enjoy solving puzzles.
Brain-teasers: Can puzzles such as Sudoku help sharpen memory?
I borrowed a friend’s Nintendo to play BrainAge2, a game that’s sold millions of copies. I have also tried out memory games at the websites of some reputed brain-fitness companies (for example, Lumosity, PositScience, CogniFit and Happy Neuron), and racked up a decent score. So I don’t think there’s something seriously wrong with my memory. Frankly, even if I hadn’t fared well, I doubt that I would have joined their brain-training programmes. Because then it becomes like joining a class. And my main purpose in playing brain games is to have fun; if in the process I can sharpen my memory, it’s a bonus.
Ideally, I prefer a good video game. Scientific tests have shown that playing Tetris, a game that was created about 25 years ago, actually stimulates the mind. I like to believe that it’s true of all the other games that I play late at night.
So why is it that after all this mental activity I still have a problem with names? Perhaps my wife is right: It’s just selective amnesia.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at firstname.lastname@example.org