A Rose by Any Other Name is… Max?

Aug 09, 2022 by Barry Eisenberg

As I was tossing a package of frozen peas into my shopping cart in a supermarket last week, I heard a familiar voice from the other end of the aisle, “Hi Barry.” I looked up and immediately recognized the person, the mom of one of my children’s friends from when the kids were young. We talked for a few minutes, catching up on our families. She knew the names of everyone in my family, and even asked about the pets… by name! But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name or the name of anyone in her family. I’ve always struggled to remember names – a seemingly incurable affliction!

Brain researchers tell us that the left side of the brain is responsible for basic memorization, including names. I’m convinced that the specific part of my left side charged with housing names consists of a black hole, a dastardly abyss in which names vanish, never to be heard from again. Or perhaps the mental pen with which I write names onto my brain’s whiteboard is filled with disappearing ink, a practical joke conceived by DNA elves, who, by the way, played the same trick on my father. Whatever the metaphor, names just don’t stick. (But somehow the tedious metaphors do… go figure!)

And yet, remembering names is important. It’s a way of showing others we care about them, that we respect them. That’s why, with frustration about my name retention impotence peaking a few years ago, I committed to a serious effort to reverse course. Determined to overcome this lifelong curse, I decided to test out a couple of name recollection strategies at my next speaking engagement.  

The perfect opportunity soon presented itself. My colleague, Carol, and I were giving a presentation on health policy to a consortium of about 40 healthcare executives in a hotel conference room in Albany, NY. Our presentation was divided into two parts. Mine was the first, about the direction of health policy, and Carol took the second half discussing implications for the attendees’ institutions.

Together, we welcomed the group, introduced ourselves, and gave an overview of the session. Next, we asked them to briefly introduce themselves. Here was my chance – I vowed to master each and every name.

Over the years, I have been given tips about how to remember names in settings like this. Two strategies seemed most apt. One was to silently say the name of each person as they introduced themselves. And as each did, restate the names of all who had preceded them.

The second strategy involved the use of mnemonic devices, associations between something we want to remember, like a person’s name, and something about the person that facilitates our retention of their name. It could be anything, for example, something about their appearance that catches our eye. Say Robert has red hair. You zero in on that and the “R” in red would serve as a trigger for the name, Robert.

Armed with two proven strategies, I was confident I would remember the names of every person in that room. I assured myself that I would emerge from this a new me, the old name-forgetting me a thing of the past.

The attendees were seated in six rows, seven seats in each row. “Let’s go around the room,” I suggested. Gesturing to the man in the front row on the right side of the room, I said “Would you please start us off? Tell us your name and a little about yourself.”

“Good morning,” he said as he rose. “My name is Brad Richardson. I’m the vice president of operations at Community Medical Center.”

I quickly put both strategies into effect. “Brad,” I said to myself. For good measure I repeated it in my mind: “Brad.” Now for the mnemonic device. Well, this was easy. “Brad” begins with a B, as does my name. The calculus was straightforward – when I look at Brad it will be like looking in a mirror.

“Thanks, Brad. Great to meet you.”

Off to a great start. What could go wrong? Not only had I repeated his name silently to myself – twice, no less – but saying it out loud when acknowledging him reinforced it in my memory, lodging it there in perpetuity. I was convinced that if I ran into Brad ten years from now, I’d remember his name.

The woman to Brad’s left went next. “Hi, everyone, and great to be here today. My name is Gina Parsons, and I’m the legal counsel for St. Mary’s Hospital.”

“Gina,” I said to myself. Invoking the strategy of saying each name in order, I silently said, “Brad, Gina.” To ensure success, I repeated their names in my mind, slowly, carefully: “B-r-a-d. G-i-n-a.”

And for a mnemonic device. Hmm, let’s see. Gina begins with a soft G. My father’s name, George, begins with a soft G. All set now. I’ll associate Gina with my father.

This could not be going better. Whoever came up with these name recollection strategies was a genius – after all, look how quickly even I was able to get the hang of them.

“So good to have you with us today, Gina,” I said. I couldn’t help but smile from some well-earned prideful self-congratulations at having mastered not one, but two names.

I nodded to the man next to Gina, inviting him to stand and introduce himself.  

“I’m Frank Villa,” he began. “I’m with North Regional as the chief financial officer, or as you probably think of me, the guy who typically says ‘no’ when you come with a request,” he said, rewarded with some polite laughter.

“Frank Villa, Frank Villa,” I said to myself. I was scrambling for a mnemonic device. Frank. Frank. Frank. Hot dog. Ok, I’ll go with hot dog. When I look at Frank, I’ll think hot dog.

“Frank, great to meet you,” I said, stating his name out loud to plug it into my memory.

I was on a roll, the success going to my head. A lifetime of suffering from forgetfulness remedied in mere seconds. Surely, it couldn’t be too soon to take a victory lap. If this continues to go as smoothly, as effortlessly, as with the first three people, I’ll be a shoo-in to win one of those memory competitions I had read about a few years ago. Perhaps I should consider the USA Memory Championship, an elite contest which attracts only the sharpest minds when it comes to memory. Contestants are asked to memorize the order of cards in a shuffled deck, well over 100 names, and a series of random words, none having a discernible relationship to any another. Those memory experts can learn and recall around 150 words in just a couple of minutes. Watch out memory champs, here I come! 

The fourth person stood up. I had but a millisecond to repeat the other three before she began.

I looked at the first person who had introduced himself. Wait. Oh no. What was his name? This couldn’t be! A total blank! Think. Think. It wasn’t coming to me. Stay cool, I thought, I could always rely on the mnemonic device. That will do the trick. I stared at him. What was the association? I remembered it had to do with a person. I knew I had used my father and myself as mnemonic prompts for the first two attendees. But which of us did I use for this man? C’mon, think harder. Must have been my father. Yes, it was my father. But what was it about my father that I had in mind? Something he likes to do? His favorite food? I was scrambling. My father liked to travel. That must be it? But what about travel? Travel begins with a “T.” Did this man’s name begin with a ‘T?” Tom, Ted, Tony. None of those seemed right. Maybe the device was where my father like to travel. Where could that be? He loved Italy. I. I. What name begins with I? Is his name Ian? Isaac? Ira?

I was determined not to let this one tiny lapse ruin an otherwise flawless effort at remembering the names. I shifted my glance to the woman who introduced herself after him. I stared at her. My chest, puffed up smugly, bordering on arrogance from the enormity of my achievement – having almost remembered three names – was rapidly deflating. Yes, that’s right, I couldn’t remember her name either. No worries. I had the mnemonic device to fall back on. Now, what was it again? Take it slow, it’ll come back. Since I had used my father for the first person, I must have been the mnemonic device for her. But what was it about me? Maybe my name. Let’s try that. I stared at her. Barbara? Becky? Belinda? None of these felt right. Brianna? Britney? Brandy? Betty? Betsy?

The fourth person was standing and about to begin. I looked at the man who had just introduced himself. His name, his name, what was it? Uh oh – I was clueless. The sparkle in my eye from just a minute earlier was now a blank stare. Wait, wait, it was coming back to me. Hot dog, I remembered hot dog. But what about a hot dog? The H? Howie? Harold? Hal? Not ringing a bell. It must be something related to a hot dog… mustard? Yes, must be mustard. Marty? Matt? Max? Max! He looks like a Max. That feels right. Whew. Back on my game.

“Hi everyone, so happy to be here,” she said. “My name is Rae Gold, and I’m the vice president of nursing at—”

Rae Gold. This couldn’t be easier, the low-hanging fruit of names. Gold – I hit the jackpot! I said her name about five times to myself. Rae Gold! Now that’s a name I can remember forever. Nothing can dislodge it from my brain, not the mental equivalent of the jaws of life. I was so enthralled about the simplicity of her name that I didn’t even hear where she worked. 

As for a mnemonic device, well, Rae Gold has endless possibilities. This will be a snap. Gold could work, of course. But I became fixed on her initials. RG, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just without the B. Ruth Ginsburg, I repeated to myself a couple of times.

“So glad you could join us today, Ruth, er, I mean Rae,” I said, catching myself.

I glanced back at man who went first. No way on Earth now that I’d remember his name. A lost cause. Same for the woman next to him. Not a chance either was coming back to me. But I was in good shape with the third, Max.

And now I said his name silently, followed by hers. Max. Rae. I repeated them. Max. Rae.

The fifth person was readying himself to stand. Max, Rae… Max, Rae, I said to myself again and again.  

“I’m the chief medical officer at Columbus Health Services,” the fifth attendee said. “And my name is Paul Jeffrey.”

“We’re so pleased you could join us today, Paul,” I said.

This was a gift. Two first names. That gives it an air of distinction that will make remembering his name a breeze. Paul Jeffrey, Paul Jeffrey, I said to myself. Paul Jeffrey, the person with two first names. Easy as pie.

I scanned the five people who had already introduced themselves. The first two – okay, I didn’t have a prayer. But I was locked in on the third: Max. This gave me some confidence. And next to him was Ruth. Or was it Rae? Ruth felt more correct. I said the three names I was now sure of. Max, Ruth, and the man with two first names, Jeff.

I was back in the memory business. Max. Ruth. Jeff. For reinforcement, I repeated their names in my mind, cementing them in the Fort Knox section of my memory bank. Max. Ruth. Jeff. I had no doubt those names will be with me for decades.

About 35 people to go. But with Max, Ruth, and Jeff solidly under my belt, I was in a groove. I could forgive myself for forgetting the first two, chalking it up to excessive enthusiasm for my early triumphs, a common rookie error. But now, my process of repeating names and creating mnemonic devices was operating on all cylinders, steady and reliable

The sixth person stood. I was momentarily distracted. I glanced back at Ruth. It occurred to me that I had the wrong Supreme Court justice as my mnemonic device. But who was the right one? Sonia Sotomayor? Elena Kagan? In a flash, I remembered it was someone who was no longer on the court. Then it came to me, Sandra Day O’Connor. Yes, that was it, I was certain, especially because I recall thinking the justice had three names. Whew! Sandra. That was the attendee’s name: Sandra. I repeated it along with others I was sure of. Max, Sandra, Jeff.

Oh, no. I just realized that I was so zoned in on retrieving Sandra’s name that I didn’t pay attention to the sixth person’s introduction.

“So happy to have you with us today,” I said when he finished.

As we moved on, the names were coming in rapid fire, mnemonics ricocheting all through me. Peter (Peter… rabbit, rabbit… Peter Rabbit). Joan (Joan… ark, ark… Joan of Ark). Michael (Michael… Sistine Chapel, Sistine Chapel… Michelangelo). I bungled each the moment it entered my mind. Rabbit… bunny… hare. His name must be Harry. Ark… flood… water. Her name must be Whitney. Chapel… alter… vows. His name must be Vaughn.

Boom, boom, boom, the names were flying in, propelled by jet engines. I couldn’t keep up. It was like the scene from that classic I Love Lucy episode with the chocolates. You know the one, it’s timeless: Lucy and Ethel are hired to wrap chocolates as the candies emerge on a conveyer belt. A stern supervisor warns them that any chocolates that fail to get wrapped would result in their termination. The belt speeds up and Lucy and Ethel can’t keep up, so they start stuffing the chocolates into their blouses, aprons, and mouths, their chipmunk cheeks ballooning. The tension they exhibited was hysterically funny and the audience was all in.

I didn’t know what to do with the names, now shooting in at warp speed, I had no place to put them. Every nook and cranny of my mind was overflowing with Bobs, Jennifers, Johns, Melissas, Tonys. My hippocampus threatened to go on strike from being overworked. Like Lucy, tension was mounting for sure. But very much unlike Lucy, not in a humorous way.

Attendee number 31 rose, a tall, slender man. My eyes riveted toward his tie, a solid bright red. He nodded hello in our direction, stating ever so slowly, deliberately – giving me a chance to regroup – “Hi to all today. My name is Rick Thompson.”

This was too good to be true. Rick Thompson. Red Tie. I didn’t have to create a mnemonic association. It was right there. Other than Max, Sandra, and Jeff, I couldn’t remember one name. But Rick was going to be special. He would be my salvation. There was no way I would flub this one. Rick Thompson. Red Tie. This was Mnemonic Heaven. Name Nirvana. A slam-dunk!

As soon as the introductions were completed, I felt I had run a marathon and I hadn’t even given my talk yet. Carol sat at the small dais facing the audience while I gave my presentation. Back in my comfort zone, it went quite well. We then had about ten minutes for questions before Carol’s talk.

A hand went up. How fortuitous! His was a name I knew, giving me a chance to show off my memory prowess.

“Yes, Max,” I said, gesturing to him to ask his question.

“I’m Frank,” he stated.

“I admire that in a person, Max,” I said. “So, what’s your question?”

Max looked at me quizzically, his expression no doubt reflecting astonishment that I remembered his name. After a brief exchange with Max about the Affordable Care Act, the person seated next to him raised her hand.

“Yes,” I said, gesturing to her to begin. “By the way, do you prefer Sandra or Sandy?”

“I prefer Rae,” she replied.

A nickname, I thought. Weird, it doesn’t even come close to Sandra.

Next, a tall, slender man in the back raised his hand, the one with the red tie. I could feel his name coming to me. It was on its way, following a route from my oversaturated temporal lobe to the tip of my tongue. Uh oh, something’s in the road… a random thought about last night’s Yankees game. I tried to carefully steer around this detour to get back to the direct route. But now I was on this Yankees side street. I needed to find a way back, and quick. But my cerebral GPS was failing me, it’s circuitry red hot from overuse.  Scrambling between an Aaron Judge home run and this tall man in front of me, the mnemonic reference was completely gone, incinerated from the flames bursting from the GPS. I was now looking at him as though seeing him for the first time. I saw the red tie. But I also noticed that his hair was quite curly. These were competing for my attention. Which was the mnemonic device? Red Tie or Curly Hair? R or C? Was he Richard or Carl… Robert or Curt… Reggie or Chris?

On and on this went as more hands were raised. I recalled not one name. I had hoped Jeff would raise his hand, giving me a chance at redemption. Questions were coming from all corners of room, but there sat Jeff, his hands folded politely in front of him.

My time was up. I thanked everyone for their attention and considerable engagement. As I sat, Carol stood and walked to the front of the room. Her talk also went well, and she, too, had about ten minutes for questions before the hour was up.

A hand went up in the back. Carol looked in his direction. “Vincent,” she said, cuing him to ask his question.

Vincent. I don’t remember anyone identifying himself as Vincent.

A moment later another hand was raised. Carol called on her, “Yes, Teresa?”

Teresa. Where was I when Teresa introduced herself?

Four more people raised their hands. Carol knew each name. In fact, she knew everyone’s name in the audience. I knew three: Max, Sandra, and Jeff.

Jeff raised his hand. Carol looked in his direction. “Paul, I see you have a question.”

Paul? I snickered to myself. So, she’s not infallible after all. Jeff just let it go, not correcting her. But, other than that one mistake, she got them all correct. That’s 35 more than I got.

The session ended. The attendees applauded and graciously thanked us as they left the conference room.

As Carol and I were preparing to leave, I asked how she managed to remember each person’s name from their introductions. I didn’t mention that she blew it with Jeff, not wanting her to feel bad about missing one.

“It’s quite simple,” she replied. “I use two techniques. The first is to repeat each name in my mind and then say each person’s name that came before.”

I was stupefied. This was my Method Number One! Is Carol gifted or am I the world’s biggest incompetent when it comes to remembering names?

I needed more information for how this works for her. “I can see how you can do that for the first few names. But when it gets up to lots of people, how do you manage to say all those names to yourself?” I asked.

“That’s a good point. But you’d be surprised at how quickly you can squeeze in lots of names in just a few seconds.”

“And what’s your other technique?”

“You’ve heard of mnemonic devices, right?”

More like de-monic devices, I muttered under my breath, not letting on this was my Method Number Two. Instead, I said, “I’m pretty sure I heard of them, but refresh my memory.”

“It’s very simple actually. Mnemonic devices are connections. I just associate the name with something distinctive about the person, or something I’m familiar with. Take Teresa. My aunt’s name is Teresa, so I thought of my aunt when Teresa introduced herself.”

“What about the tall guy toward the back, the one with the curly hair and red tie?”

“Oh, Rick, sure, Rick Thompson,” Carol said.

Rick Thompson. The name was beginning to come back to me, like a hazy desert mirage flickering into view.

“Yes, Rick, of course,” I said with contrived confidence, as though I knew the name all along. “I suppose that was an easy one. After all, Red Tie, Rick Thompson, right?

“I couldn’t use red tie for Rick because I had already used a similar association for someone else. Remember Peter Thornton? He was sitting toward the middle, wearing a multi-colored tie.”

There was a Peter Thornton in our audience?

Carol continued, “And one of the colors on the tie was rose. So, I thought rose, roses have thorns. Thorns. Thornton. And his first name, Peter, came from repeating all the names to myself as each person did their introduction.”

“Oh, I see. So, what worked for Rick?”

“When I was growing up, there was a tall, lanky boy in the neighborhood. He gave himself a nickname, Stick. Rick reminded me of him. So, it was easy. Rick the Stick. Rick.”

I just stared at Carol, mesmerized at how simple this was for her. For me, it was a catastrophe, an epic failure. Instead of the day providing me with a boost for remembering names, it knocked my confidence further off track. I was left second-guessing everyone’s name. Was Max Max? Sandra Sandra? Jeff Jeff?

Was she Carol? Was I Barry? Am I me?

As we started walking toward the lobby to go our separate ways, Carol called out, smiling, “Hey, you should really give these memorizing techniques a try sometime. They’re foolproof. It makes life so easy.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Can’t wait to give it a shot.”

I passed through the revolving door and headed to the parking lot. Now, where did I park my car?