Chemo-Brain: Part 2

"I just can't seem to remember names anymore."

Attention and Memory

One of the most frequently reported cognitive concerns following cancer and cancer-related treatment is a difficulty recalling individuals' names. Think about all of the times where you meet a new person in work, social, or healthcare settings. We learn new names everyday. Difficulty recalling these new names can lead to feelings of embarrassment and frustration.  If you're someone who says, "I'm just bad at names",  this no longer needs to be the case!


Interestingly, the problem often stems from a failure to LEARN the name and less so to REMEMBER the name. A number of studies have shown that attention is one area of cognitive functioning that can be negatively affected by Cancer. Cognitive Rehabilitation focuses a great deal on improving attention skills through a variety of practices.

Attention concerns our ability to focus and attend to incoming information through our senses, including sight and sound. Attending to information is key if we are to access, or RETRIEVE it at a later time. So, when people report being unable to REMEMBER a name, it might just be that they did not learn the name in the first place. Here is a 5-step method for helping you learn and retrieve names.  

The 5-Step Method for Learning Names

  1. The first step is to make sure you get the name! This means that before you even ask, prepare yourself for what you are about to hear. Do not be afraid to ask the person to repeat, or even spell their name. I promise you won't look one has ever been offended when you show genuine interest in their name.
  2. Step two is to make the name meaningful. One strategy is to create a visual association between their name and an aspect of their face. This is better than picking something like clothing, which will likely be different next time you see them. For example, for someone with the last name "Ritchie", you could imagine them wearing a gaudy amount of Gold and Diamond Jewelry on their ears and neck.  If it sounds silly, good! We tend to remember details when they are odd and out of the norm.
  3. Step three is to substitute words. This can be an alternative to Step three if you have a hard time makingassociations. For example, my last name is Benjamin Felleman. You could break this down into parts and substitute words. Try, Ben was JAMIN at a concert and then heFELL on a -MAN.
  4. Step four is to make the name meaningful by asking questions. For example, you could ask, "where does that name originate from?" "Why were you named that?" "What does that name mean?" Each new bit of information we learn will help us with future recall.
  5. Step five is to review the association, either verbally or by writing it down. I suggest to all of my clients to get a "Memory Notebook" when we begin cognitive rehabilitation training. The purpose is to help with organizing and reviewing the skills learned in treatment.  typically suggest learning 3 new names each day, writing down the new name (plus the association you've made) in a memory notebook. 

Like learning any new skill, this will take time and dedication. But if you stick with it, I'm confident you will no longer be saying, "I am bad at names." Good luck and start practicing!