The Magic of a Name

I remember that as a child I was really good with names, but not that good with faces. I could remember all 30 names of the kids in my elementary class, and in the other classrooms, but I could not always remember a face to go with the name. This kept up through about high school, but at some point it switched, and I became better at remembering faces than names. I remember growing up hearing people say they remembered faces but not names, and thinking that I must have been different for being the opposite. I’m not sure exactly what caused the change, but I suspect that somewhere along the line I started paying less attention to people, especially people I would only know for a semester in college before moving on, and as a result I only vaguely remember faces and never really got their names down.


In general day to day life, this probably isn’t a big deal for me. But if I am trying to build meaningful relationships with people who will be bigger parts of my life than just someone I saw at a party once or someone who made my coffee one day, then remembering names is important. Dale Carnegie explains why in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People:


“We should be aware of the magic contained in a name and realize that this single item is wholly and completely owned by the person with whom we are dealing … and nobody else. The name sets the individual apart; it makes him or her unique among all others. The information we are imparting or the request we are making takes on a special importance when we approach the situation with the name of the individual.”


Part of the power in remembering a name is just signaling. It tells the other person that we actually paid attention to them when we interacted with them in the past, enough to where we at least remembered their name. Going back to my opening paragraph, part of my suspicion of why I forget names is because I stopped paying as much attention to other people, focusing instead on my studies or class discussion, or on other trivial things like what I was going to eat for dinner.


Remembering someone’s name signals to them that they are valuable enough to be remembered. That you truly listened to them in the past and cared enough about them to take them seriously. Forgetting their name shows that you instantly forgot them, and that you never really cared about them in the first place. Building relationships requires that you actually like the other person you want to build a relationship with, or minimally at least respect them, and remembering their name helps make a public display of your level of sincerity in terms of your relationship building.


I am always amazed with just how much I fail to remember. I generally remember the large details, what I did yesterday, what big sporting events I went to last year, and the date of my anniversary, but the amount of small details I fail to remember that seem like they would be something I would remember is incredible. I forget things said in conversations within a day or two, I forget small things that I have done such as gestures or what I ate, and I forget who I was with at different places or events.


As Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “The rapidity with which we forget is astonishing.”


Recently I have been doing a lot of reading focused on cognitive psychology and the way we think. What I find surprising is just how often our thinking is not what we expect it to be. We make lots of assumptions, act on shortcuts and heuristics, and filter out a lot of data and information when making decisions and coming to conclusions. What I have learned from all this reading is that we cannot fully trust what our minds believe.


Carnegie’s quote fits in with the research I have recently been focused on and strengthens my argument. We forget a lot. We don’t remember specific details of conversations and we don’t perfectly remember the sequence of events from things that we have been a part of or a witness to. Our minds simply don’t operate in a way to help us perfectly understand and think about the world. There is too much information out there for our brains to try to do this, and instead, we take short cuts, focusing on the important information to start with, and quickly forgetting the unimportant details along the way.


The takeaway from Carnegie’s quote is simply that our minds are not perfect. Don’t expect yourself to remember every single detail, and instead set up systems to remember the big things. Being aware of how much we will forget will help us take steps to remember what we need to remember, whether that is using notes, mental heuristics for remembering key information, or outsourcing our memory to photos, videos, or our own personal scribe. Be prepared to forget a lot of information, and take steps to retain that which matters most.

Our Brains Don’t Hold Information as Well as We Think

Anyone who has ever misplaced their keys or their wallet knows that the brain can be a bit faulty. If you have ever been convinced you saw a snake only to find out it was a plastic bag, or if you remembered dropping a pan full of sweet potatoes as a child during Thanksgiving only to get into an argument with your brother about which one of you actually dropped the pan, then you know your brain can misinterpret signals and mis-remember events. For some reason, our hyper-powerful pattern recognition brains seem to be fine with letting us down from time to time.


In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write, “There’s a wide base of evidence showing that human brains are poor stewards of the information they receive from the outside world. But this seems entirely self-defeating, like shooting oneself in the foot. If our minds contain maps of our worlds, what good comes from having an inaccurate version of these maps?” 


The question is, why do we have such powerful brains that can do such amazing things, but that still make basic mistakes all the time? The answer that Hanson and Simler propose throughout the book is that having super accurate information in the brain, remembering everything perfectly, and clearly observing everything around us is actually detrimental to our success as a social species. Our view of the world only needs to be so accurate for us to successfully function as biological creatures. We only need senses that satisfice for us to evade predators, avoid poisonous mushrooms, and get enough food. What really drives the evolution of the brain, is being successful socially, and sometimes a bit of deception gives us a big advantage.


It is clear that the brain is not perfect at observing the world. We don’t see infrared wavelengths of light, we can’t sense the earths magnetic pull, and we can’t hear as many sounds as dogs can hear. Our experience of the world is limited. On top of those limitations, our brains are not that interested in having an accurate picture of the information that it actually can observe. We must keep this in mind as we go through our lives. What can seem so clear and obvious to us, may be a distorted picture of the world that someone else can see as incomplete. A good way to move forward is to abandon the idea that we have (or must have) a perfect view and opinion of the world. Acknowledge that we have preferences and opinions that shape how we interpret the world, and even if we are not open to changing those opinions, at least be open to the idea that our brains are not designed to have perfect views, and that we might be shortsighted in some areas. We will need to bond with others and form meaningful social groups, but we should not accept that we will have to delude our view of the world and accept alternate facts to fit in.

Our Devious Minds

We now realize,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky – they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible pro-social motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas. As Trivers puts it: “At ever single state [of processing information] from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others – the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.


Recently I have been pretty fascinated by the idea that our minds don’t do a good job of perceiving reality. The quote above shows many of the points where our minds build a false sense of reality for us and where our perceptions and understanding can go astray. It is tempting to believe that we observe and recognize an objective picture of the world, but there are simply too many points where our mental conceptualization of the world can deviate from an objective reality (if that objective reality ever even exists).


What I have taken away from discussions and books focused on the way we think and the mistakes our brain can make is that we cannot always trust our mind. We won’t always remember things correctly and we won’t always see things as clearly as we believe. What we believe to be best and correct about the world may not be accurate. In that sense, we should doubt our beliefs and the beliefs of others constantly. We should develop processes and systems for identifying information that is reasonable and question information that aligns with our prior beliefs as much as information that contradicts our prior beliefs. We should identify key principles that are most important to us, and focus on those, rather than focus on specific and particular instances that we try to understand by filling in answers from generalizations.

Advice Doesn’t Help Us Generate Knowledge

As you would expect, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is all about how to be a more effective coach. Part of becoming a more effective coach involves understanding how the brain works so that you can understand how the people you coach are going to learn and react in certain situations. To help demonstrate the importance of knowing how the brain works, Bungay Stanier references Josh Davis and his colleagues from the NeuroLeeadership Institute and their model known as “AGES”. Specifically, Bungay Stanier focuses on the “G” from AGES.


G stands for Generation, and commenting on knowledge generation, Bungay Stanier writes, “Advice is overrated. I can tell you something, and it’s got a limited chance of making its way into your brain’s hippocampus, the region  that encodes memory. If I can ask you a question and you generate the answer yourself, the odds increase substantially.” What is important here is understanding that we create memories and generate our knowledge in an active process. Learning and creating knowledge are not passive processes. We don’t sit in a sea of information and passively absorb new lessons and knowledge as tides of information wash into our brains. Instead, we hunt down the specific information we need or want (or sometimes we inadvertently pursue it) and emotion and engagement pull the knowledge into our minds.


Quoting the NeuroLeadership Institute, Bungay Stanier writes, “When we take time and effort to generate knowledge and find an answer rather than just reading it, our memory retention is increased.” The chance of us remembering something a professor says, or something we hear on TV, or the advice our parents give us is not great when it is just verbally directed toward us. If we truly seek out the information, if the information is presented to us in a way that forces us to be more engaged to get the answer we need, and if we have to truly use the faculties of our mind to find meaning, reason, and truth, then we will have a more powerful connection to the knowledge. We will generate new information in our brain and become more knowledgeable than we would if the information was simply presented to (or at) us.