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Face-to-Face: Memory & the Impact of Physical Meeting

By Ciéra Cree & Lorenzo Barba - Have you ever sat down and thought to yourself “how many people have I come into some form of contact with over my lifetime?”. It’s fascinating...

By Ciéra Cree & Lorenzo Barba

Have you ever sat down and thought to yourself “how many people have I come into some form of contact with over my lifetime?”. It’s fascinating. We pass by people every day in places such as streets and school hallways, but if we truly tested ourselves, how many of their names and faces could we still pass through our minds?

I decided to conduct an experiment to collect primary data on this idea, whilst Lorenzo tested out the same exercise in order to gather some secondary data.

To test my memory, I gave myself the ambitious target of attempting to name 500 people that I have come into contact with throughout my life so far. These people could be anyone, permitted that I had seen them in-person, that they were alive and that they were not related to me in any way. 500 was an unquestionably large target, but when testing a hypothesis like this, shooting high to test my limits felt like a better approach than to stay within my comfort zone.

My sole resource for this experiment was a simple document to record my list. I was not allowed to use my phone to check my contacts, and I was not allowed to use the internet to assist me in any possible way.

I personally found that the best way for me to begin this task was to split my list into numerous headings. This made it easier to keep track of who I had already named as well as to get my mind to shift into a particular time period. These headings were then split into sub-headings, creating further specificity for what initially was a very broad task. The breakdown of my list went as follows:

  • Primary School
    • Primary School Friends
    • Primary School Teachers
    • Primary School Miscellaneous
  • High School
    • High School Friend Group
    • High School Tutor Group
    • High School Teachers
    • High School English Class
    • High School Miscellaneous
  • Sixth Form
    • Sixth Form Students
    • Sixth Form Teachers
  • University
    • University Pals
    • Indian Society
    • Media Studies Class
    • University Lecturers
    • University Miscellaneous
  • Poetry People
  • Random People

The Results

Primary School

I started with primary school in this experiment because it’s the furthest back that I can remember. I’m unable to remember anyone from pre-school that didn’t, in years to come, join me at primary school. I didn’t find remembering people for this section overly difficult, likely because the primary school that I attended was the one local to where I live, but I did find that there were chances of potential overlap due to many students of that school going on to the same high school that I studied in.

In total, over an hour and a half, 58 of the people that I listed were within one of the primary school subheadings. I found that recalling the names of staff and more prominent village members, such as the church reverend and village magazine editors, was relatively easy, seeing as in primary school there tended to be fewer adult figures to remember.

High School

Jumping into the high school section, I immediately speculated that this would be one of the two main contenders, with university being the other. Upon joining high school at the tender age of 11, I was introduced to many new school subjects which, in turn, resulted in having a much larger assortment of teachers than before. When I started there, my memory would have been better developed as well, possibly explaining how 95 of those that I listed held a connection towards high school. 37 of these 95 people were teachers and members of staff which I believe could be the case because, as a student, these were people that I had to see on a frequent basis and, therefore, I needed to remember their names.

I included ‘High School English Class’ as a separate subheading as I seem to have a more vivid memory of that class’ seating arrangement. This is likely due to the fact that English was my favourite subject.

Sixth Form

At sixth form, in comparison to high school, the number of teachers you have depletes significantly as you study fewer subjects. This had an apparent impact on my results, causing the sixth form sub-headings collectively to only total 38 people. During sixth form, I wasn’t as talkative as I am at university, which I feel will have somewhat contributed to this outcome as well.

University

I may have fewer teachers at university than I did back in high school, but I engage in a lot more extracurricular activities, such as societies. Living on campus, prior to lockdown, provided various opportunities to go out with friends, to attend events, and to meet new people. 76 out of the 84 people that came to mind when making my list were people that I had met from around campus, with the others consisting of my lecturers. I did not find this surprising, and I know that I would be able to recognise many other people who I either do not know by name or that just happened to slip my mind during this study.

Poetry People & Random People

These last two categories were reserved for people that I had met over my gap year while pursuing poetry, and for everyday people that I had come to know such as taxi drivers and hairdressers. Together, the two of these categories totalled 27 people.

Thoughts & Reflections

When I was writing down the names of each person as I remembered them, the way that they connected to my memory seemed to arise with it as well. For instance, when writing down the name of a girl I rarely spoke to in high school Geography class, my mind instantly thought “oh, she was friends with the other girl who I talked to more in class who was on the sports team”. It was interesting to see how my mind automatically made these associations and did its best to instinctively fill in any gaps.

The order in which I seemed to remember the names of these people was something that I also tried to make a note of. This was made easier because I categorised my list, but it was also insightful to see the patterns that my memory was going through in order to translate what I wanted to say onto the document’s page. For example, when listing people that I know from university, my mind was quicker in making connections to other people that those I listed knew mutually. This would be the case due to the fact that I study there currently and have come into contact with those people more recently.

There were definitely people that came into my mind in a more prominent way, and I found that the people who did were the ones that I had more of a feeling attached to. People who had a notable impact on my life, for better or for worse, and people that I cared about a lot or remained in frequent touch with tended to surface before those who remained more in the background. That being said, remembering people that I didn’t talk to often, who shared some classes with me, was not too difficult either as our timetables often coincided.

“I found it surprising how difficult it could be just to simply write the name of someone who’s been attributed to some of my less fond memories in life (writing the name of my high school bully, for instance, slightly took me off guard), but equally writing the name of someone who’s been responsible for many positive memories such as my best friend I met at university made me smile almost uncontrollably. My takeaway from this experiment was that while you’re bound to meet some toxic people throughout your walk of life, you’re also equally bound to come across some truly lovely, inspiring people which to me makes every negative person you encounter that much more worth the pain you will have had to endure.” – Lorenzo Barba (Secondary Data)

Why did I conduct this experiment?

In total, in just under an hour and a half, I had managed to list 302 people that I knew from memory. I wanted to undergo this experiment because, right now, amid COVID-19 and social distancing, we have been discouraged to socialise with people face-to-face, and I thought that taking the time to recount how many people I could remember would create an interesting investigation.

“I didn’t get nearly as high as 302, but I found that upon listing the first few names, I got strong memories and emotional reactions surrounding them. It’s really interesting to wonder how long it’s been since I’ve crossed the minds of some of the people on this list. It’s harrowing but also beautiful how easy and quick it can be to make a permanent impact on someone’s life, be it positive or negative.” – Lorenzo Barba (Secondary Data)

We are fortunate today to have technology that enables us to stay in touch face-to-face regardless of distance. However, my hope after this pandemic is that we will all treasure face-to-face interactions more than we did before. Talking to people and going out was something that we just did; it was a part of our everyday lives, so there wasn’t much of a second thought about it. Now though, the return of our physically present social lives is something that vast numbers of us are longing for.

I would like you to take a moment to think about all of the people that come to mind when you think back through the different stages of your life. The people who sat with you in class who you didn’t really talk to, that old friend you had when you were 6, or the kind postman that always smiled at you as he delivered the post.

We have encountered so many people in our lives, and we will go on to encounter many more. While there may be no way of knowing who remembers us after-the-fact, it is in our capability to do our best to be memorable to those we encounter in positive ways. So, the next time that you meet someone that seems kind but remains in the background of your life, why not ask them out for a coffee? Who knows, that initial face-to-face engagement could lead to greater things.

Image: Joshua Ness on Unsplash

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