Remembering people's name with Anki

by ArthurRainbow3 min read14th Feb 20215 comments

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Anki changed my life in a lot of way. But the most obvious one is that, thanks to Anki, I do finally recall people's name ! You can find my example, with my name and picture, on my website.

How I know that anki really works

I'm really bad at remembering faces and names[1]. With anki, it did change a lot. I started a new job in September 2017 as a post-doc. A month before starting, I went on the website of the laboratory I was joining, and I red the list of my future colleagues. I then created a card with their picture, first-name, last name. If the picture were not on their professional webpage, I did try to find them on the web and in social media. In September, when I started my job, I already knew their name[2].

I was able to easily see the effect of Anki, because I realized that, while I knew the name of the colleague who have an Anki card, I still had trouble recalling the name of the few colleague who had no Anki cards. I.e. if a problem had no picture of themselves on the web, I wasn't able to recall their name. In particular, it was hard for me to learn the name of the administrative staff, because their name and pictures do not appear on our website. .

Using Anki to learn name has a strange side-effect. When I see the face of a colleague, I need to recall to which picture of Anki he looks like, and then I can recall his[3] name. So, it's still a costly process in my head, since using Anki created an unusual indirection.

Of course, I could ask anyone without picture on the web whether I could take a picture to add in my database. Bit I believe it would have sound strange.

Remaining problems

One problem with the Anki method is that it only works when I made cards. However, most of the time, I don't think about taking time to make the cards. I should certainly remember the name of people I meet in conferences, they could be future colleagues, they could lead to job opportunities or to scientific collaborations. Recalling their name and where we meet is thus important. But I don't necessarily think about doing it while in the conference. And once I leave the conference, I never do the card.

Similarly, I've got a life outside of my work. For example, when I meet friend of friend, I may want to recall them. But I can't necessarily ask to take a picture of them. And if I met them at a queer event, a polyamory event, or a BDSM event, I think adding this information in a database would be a bad idea, even if its only a private database.

Famous people

Another thing which confused me a lot is the name of famous people. Usually, I can tell more or less why they are famous. For example, I do know Didier Leribon and Didier Lestrade wrote about homosexuality. I do know that Eric S Raymond and Paul Graham wrote texts which are considered to be important in hacker's culture, and the name of their texts use two words (Hacker and Painter, Bazar and Cathedral), while I never remembered which one is which one. So I currently try to use Anki to learn the name, figure and achievement of a few great name of computer science. I may write a day about the result of this experience. Right now, my biggest problem is that I do not know who I must add.

Wikipedia has list of important people in computer science. However, this list contains Euclide, Turing, Torvalds, Knuth, Jobs... I tried to add them in chronological order. The first cards were easy, I already knew about Euclide, Al-Khwarizmi, etc... they are famous. But now I do realize that even if Frances E. Allen is a pionner in CS, the note I have about her does not really help me in any way. Ok, nowaday, if I meet her, I may recall her name. But I would not really know why she is famous. Well, I'd know she is famous for being the first woman to have a Turing prize, but it would not tell me what she did to deserve it. Or more exactly, I may know she worked on compiler, but I don't know what she did about them. Worse, I believe that the early work is CS is now so basic that it would not be clear to me that it was an important work in her time.

Note that I don't only consider real people. I'm currently also using Anki to learn the name and principal description of characters of long books. I usually get lost in Disc-world, for example. I now have a disc-world deck with the name of the most important characters, and a short description of things which happened to them. I also thought about doing the same thing with Tolkien's mythology, I then realized it would probably be far too much work. Especially since I don't yet know how successful this kind of deck will be.

Forgetting

I have a trouble with faces and names I do not usually have with Anki. I forgot quicker than usual. Anki waits more and more before two successive occurrence of the same question. The main idea of Anki is that, if you did remember successfully after 4 days, 16 days, 2 months, then you can wait 8 months before the next time Anki ask you to recall this information. This is certainly true when knowledge are interrelated. For example, imagine I have just seen a mathematical concept. Imagine that Anki tells me that I won't see it again for a full year. It's not really a problem, because I'll still use my knowledge to learn and work with more complicated concepts.

However, if I did not see the face of a colleague of my old laboratory during 6 months, I may totally have forgotten the name of this colleague. I never had any occasion to remember his name. It follows that I often fail the cards asking me the name of people I do not see anymore.


  1. Actually, it's still a little bit complicated because of my trans friends who change their first name. But appart from this case, I actually do remember names now. ↩︎

  2. In fact, it wast strange. Because, when I was introduced to them, they told me their name. I wanted to answer that I already knew. I didn't answer this, however, since I feared it would seems strange, and it was my first day at my new job. ↩︎

  3. I have a single female colleague, whose name is Mary. Let's say that, in her case, I do not have any trouble recalling her name ↩︎

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This is a great idea. I wish I had done it years ago.

I have used Anki to remember names and faces on multiple occasions. It works well, usually I've only used it at the beginning of being in the environment. For the names of famous people I don't think it passes the cost-benefits test. Gwern recommends only adding a card if it will save you 5 minutes over a lifetime, and so memorizing large corpuses where you may only need a handful of them ever is likely to be a bad tradeoff. The difference between these scenarios is that remembering faces and names is something you need to have instant access to, but misremembering famous people is either acceptable in the case of conversations, or can be referenced when it comes up in my writing or thinking.

Thanks. I only partially agree with what you quote.

In a part of hacker community, being able to remember who is Raymond or Graham may be the difference between being considered as a member of the ingroup or not. Of course, that's never such a binary choice, but it clearly may help to indicates that we have the same reading in commons, Hacker and Painter, The bazar and the Cathedraal. I can't state whether it'll save 5 minutes or less, because the question is not how much time it takes to remember the information, but the message sent.

Furthermore, it sometimes occurred that I met famous searcher in academic conference. Turing price or Fields Medal. I won't work with them quite probably, but I suspect that having known who they are, what they are known for, may potentially have been a lead to interesting discussion, and help me know where to lead the discussion.

Regarding the fact that you forget quicker than usual. Why not using the deck settings like lowering the interval modifier + adding a 6 month limit ? Or just lowering the starting ease.

Because I'm lazy.

More generally, usually, the path is: I see someone every week, then I don't see them at all anymore. This is usually the case when I move to a new country/job. That's the moment where the interval/setting should change. Even if I don't do it manually, the next time the question is asked and I press again, the fact that I forgot means the interval will become small again. In this case, the app will mostly deal with it by itself, even if it takes some time, so no reason to take time dealing with it myself.