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It’s on the tip of your tongue. You know their name, you know you do. And yet, you stand there, trying to find a subtle way to figure it out. You feel embarrassed (especially because they always remember your name). Luckily, researchers may have found an answer for those awkward moments. And it’s easier than you may think.
Instead of parsing through flashcards, memory games, or mnemonic devices to improve your recollection of names and faces, try sleeping. Yes, sleeping.
A recent study from researchers at Northwestern University published in the NPJ Science of Learning examined whether memory reactivation during sleep could improve name and face recognition. The researchers also looked at how the quality of sleep (interrupted versus non-interrupted) impacted participants’ ability to recall names and faces.
The study relied on Targeted Memory Reactivation (TMR). Using this technique, researchers produce a smell or sound while disclosing information to participants. Then, while participants sleep, the same smell or sound appears. Researchers find that with this technique, information associated with a particular smell or sound comes to the forefront of our brains—even as we sleep. For anyone who has a pleasant (or terrible) memory associated with a particular smell or sound, this makes sense. You smell something—or hear something—and you’re transported to another point in time. Turns out, the same technique may be the trick to how to remember names and faces.
How a nap—and TMR–can help you remember names
In the study, 24 participants learned the names and faces of 40 people in a Japanese history class or a Latin America history class. Participants were shown a face with a corresponding written name. Researchers also read the names aloud to participants. While this learning occurred, background music played (either Latin American music or Japanese music, depending on the class). Following the activity, researchers tested the memory of the participants, to see how many names and faces could be recalled.
After this initial recall test, participants napped for a period of 32 to 92 minutes. As the participants slept, researchers engaged with the TMR technique. The same Latin American or Japanese music that had played in the background during the initial learning and testing phase softly played in the background of these naps. Some of the spoken names were also played.
When researchers subsequently tested participants on how well they could recall names and faces, they found participants performed better on the memory test than they had pre-nap. Participants who experienced longer periods of deep, uninterrupted sleep demonstrated a greater ability to remember names and faces than participants who experienced low-quality, interrupted sleep.
While TMR can be challenging to implement outside of a research setting, the connection between sensory memories and name and face recognition (plus, of course, deep sleep) is undeniable. So, the next time you’re struggling to remember a name (or face), try recalling the senses present when you last interacted with that person. Oh, and go ahead and take an afternoon nap.