Cheryl Greenberg - HeadshotCheryl Greenberg, Ed.D.

Cheryl Greenberg, Ed.D., works as a coach, or guide, for seniors and their families as they consider and plan for changes in their personal and work lives. Contact her at or 336-202-5669.

Imagine this: At a neighborhood party, you meet Gabriel, a young man who recently moved into the two-story house just down the street from your home. You welcome him warmly. Two days later, while shopping at Harris Teeter, you run into Gabriel. “Hello,” you begin … but you don’t have any idea what his name is.

Why in the world did you not remember Gabriel’s name?

The most common reason we don’t remember someone’s name … or the date of a doctor’s appointment, directions to a new restaurant, or a news article that we just read … is that we don’t pay enough attention. Oh, we think we are listening or reading, but lots of other ideas are attracting our attention at the same time.

Think about your imaginary new neighbor again. Check all the following that might apply to what you were doing when you were first introduced to Gabriel:

  • You met Gabriel when he was surrounded by other neighbors you know well. You chatted with the whole group for a few minutes.
  • You were holding bags of groceries, the mail, and your phone while trying to be friendly and welcoming.
  • As soon as he said his name, you said, “You will love the neighborhood. Are you getting settled in?”

The choices above give you the impression that you are learning the young man’s name, but in fact, there are many things going on at the same time. Lots of simultaneous activities keep your brain from moving a new name from a superficial, momentary impression to a long-term memory.

Remembering a name is not automatic. It takes focus.

  • Avoid distractions, or at least be aware that there are distractions, and pay close attention. Even if you are surrounded by other people, focus your attention on the person you are meeting.
  • Again, avoid distractions. Holding groceries, mail, and a phone are a bit of a balancing act and takes attention, especially if you try to shake hands and learn a name at the same time. Focus your attention on the person.
  • Notice the person’s face when you hear his name. Silently ask yourself (and answer) questions such as, “What does he look like?” “Does he remind me of anyone?” “Does he have distinguishing features?” He will change his clothes, but his face will stay the same! And his face will serve as a subconscious cue to his name.
  • Again, focus and practice! Concentrate and repeat his name to yourself before you start to chat about other things. As you move away from him, take a moment to picture his face and say his name to yourself again.

Does this work for remembering a doctor’s appointment, directions to a restaurant, or something you read? Absolutely. No matter what you are trying to remember, avoid thinking about other activities while you are committing something new to memory, and check your memory by intentionally recalling the new information.

Paying attention and repeating what you are trying to remember are steps to a good memory.

For more information about healthy aging, including improving your memory, visit or Facebook/TheAgeCoach.