Seeing names: the fascinating world of synaesthesia

I’m terrible at remembering people’s names. I’m well aware of this deficiency and over the 'Peter' years I’ve made a conscious effort to address it, admittedly with limited success.

As Dale Carnegie once observed, ‘A person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.’ For Carnegie this was simply good business: remembering someone’s name helps establish a rapport conducive to a productive professional relationship. It’s also good manners, a demonstration of respect for someone by committing to memory the key piece of information they have just entrusted to you.

The internet is full of advice on different techniques you can use to get better at registering someone’s name when they tell you. The more common ones are:

  • pay attention as they say it (this seems obvious but apparently is the first thing people fail to do)
  • repeat their name back to them as part of your initial conversation
  • create some form of mental association with their name (e.g. someone famous with the same name, a rhyme, something about their physical appearance connected to their name).

For some people there are very genuine reasons why they find remembering names difficult. When Bernadette Sheridan hears a name, she gets distracted because she is counting the number of letters and visualising each as a colour.

Bernadette has grapheme-colour synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a condition where one of a person’s senses is also perceived by another. In Bernadette’s case, she associates letters and numbers with specific colours. So, when she hears a name, she sees it as a string of coloured blocks, one for each letter.

Bernadette has written a great article for Medium, so rather than paraphrase it I suggest you read it for yourself. She has also created a nifty website, Synesthesia.Me, where she documents how she sees different names based on her own unique synaesthesia colour alphabet.

For my part, I find the best way to remember a name is to make a note of it as soon as I can. It seems the physical act of writing something down is the best way for me to commit it to memory, even if I never look at it again.

Image: how Bernadette Sheridan ‘experiences’ the name Peter (generated from Synesthesia.Me)

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