Ben Pridmore is the world's highest-ranked competitive memoriser. Last year, he recalled the sequence of a shuffled pack of playing cards after looking at them for exactly 31.03 seconds. That set a new record, beating the previous year's 32.13 seconds, which would have been bad news for the previous record-holder, except that that was Ben, too. If you need help memorising playing cards - or historical dates or lists of random numbers - Ben's your man. "Yet the only thing anyone ever asks me about," he told me recently, "is how to remember people's names. And, personally, I'm terrible at remembering names."
I've never understood why people get embarrassed at forgetting others' names. Systems for remembering them (and other facts) make up a huge subsection of the self-help world. There are websites, workshops and audio tutorials; in the UK, the niche is dominated by another world memory champion, Dominic O'Brien, whose books include Never Forget Names And Faces, How To Develop A Brilliant Memory Week By Week and The Amazing Memory Kit.
What makes matching a name to a face so hard is that the possible ranges of names and faces are both infinite. For sequences of numbers, it's different. "All you have to do is turn each combination of two or three digits into a picture, so you just need a list of several thousand images," Ben said. "So, 166054137 becomes a catapult, launching at a soldier with an insect on him."
Yet remembering a large number of names connected to faces is harder. There are techniques, of course: Tom Weber, who calls himself The Memory Guy, advocates a version of the picture method: if you meet someone called Barbara, "think of a barbed-wire fence. Now picture her wrapped in barbed wire." I suppose so, but how do you remember which of the people you met is meant to be the one wrapped in barbed wire? Another approach is to use a name frequently the moment you learn it: "Great to meet you, Tim. Glad to hear it, Tim." This has the benefit of making you sound like a time-share salesman, so reducing the size of your social circle and, accordingly, the number of names you'll have to remember.
A surprising recent finding in the psychology of memory is that you're more likely to remember details of an event if you adopt the physical position you had at the time, which could work for name recall, if you meet people in a sufficient variety of positions. Failing that, you'll have to resort to tricks. My favourite is to fail to introduce two people, then, a few seconds later, apologise for the oversight and hold out your palms, as if encouraging them to introduce themselves to each other. They will.
Ben is writing my kind of self-help book. It's called How To Be Clever and it's "about how to convince people you're a genius when you're not, by doing things like memorising lists of dates and playing cards. I don't claim to help you be a better person. I'm just claiming to help you get a reputation as a smart aleck."