mnemonics

New mnemonics books & articles

  • New 2nd edition of Mnemonics for Study
  • New Spanish & Italian editions
  • New mnemonics articles

book coverI have updated my Mnemonics for Study book. The two main changes are that each chapter now has review questions, and there's an extra chapter which is a very detailed step-by-step case study, showing how and when to use mnemonics to learn the Geological Time Scale. There are lots of visuals,  mnemonics and others.

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Memorizing the Geological Time Scale

In the following case study, I explore in depth the issue of learning the geological time scale — names, dates, and defining events. The emphasis is on developing mnemonics, of course, but an important part of the discussion concerns when and when not to use mnemonics, and how to decide.


The Geological Time Scale

Phanerozoic Eon 542 mya—present

  Cenozoic Era 65 mya—present

    Neogene Period 23 mya—present

Holocene Epoch 8000 ya—present

Pleistocene Epoch 1.8 mya—8000ya

Pliocene Epoch 5.3 mya—1.8 mya

Miocene Epoch 23 mya—5.3 mya

   Paleogene Period 65 mya—23 mya

Oligocene Epoch 34 mya—23 mya

Eocene Epoch 56 mya—34 mya

Paleocene Epoch 65 mya—56 mya

  Mesozoic Era 250 mya—65 mya

    Cretaceous Period 145 mya—65 mya

    Jurassic Period 200 mya—145 mya

    Triassic Period 250 mya—200 mya

  Paleozoic Era 542 mya—250 mya

    Permian Period 300 mya—250 mya

    Carboniferous Period 360 mya—300 mya

    Devonian Period 416mya—360 mya

    Silurian Period 444 mya—416 mya

    Ordovician Period 488 mya—444 mya

    Cambrian Period 542mya—488 mya

Precambrian 4560 mya—542 mya

 Proterozoic Eon 2500 mya—542 mya

 Archean Eon 3800 mya—2500 mya

 Hadean Eon 4560 mya—3800 mya


How do we set about learning all this? Let’s look at our possible strategies.

Memorizing new words, lists and dates

Acronyms

A common trick to help remember the geological time scale is to use a first-letter acronym, such as the classic:

Camels Often Sit Down Carefully; Perhaps Their Joints Creak? Persistent Early Oiling Might Prevent Permanent Rheumatism.

(This begins with the Cambrian Period and moves forward in time; note that in this traditional mnemonic the Holocene Epoch is here thought of by its older name of “Recent Epoch”.)

What’s the problem with this, as a way of remembering the geological scale?

It assumes we already know the names.

The principal (and often, only) purpose of an acronym is to remind you of the order of items that you already know.

A common problem with acronyms (first-letter by definition) is that there are often repeats of initials, causing confusion. A more useful strategy (though far more difficult) might be to use the first two or preferably three letters of the words. This not only distinguishes more clearly between items, but also provides a much better cue for items that are not hugely familiar. For example, here’s one I came up with for the geological time-scale:

Hollow Pleadings Plight Miosis;

Olive Eons Pall Creation; (or Olive Eons Palm Credulous, for a slight rhyme)

Juries Trick Perplexed Carousers;

Devils Silence Ordered Campers.

Because it is extremely difficult to make a meaningful sentence with these restraints (largely because of rare combinations such as Eo- and Mio- and to a lesser extent, Pli, Oli, and Jur), I have used rhythm to group it into a verse. There’s a slight rhyme, but it’s amazing how much power rhythm has to facilitate memory on its own.

It is easier, of course, to construct a sentence with these items if you are allowed to include a few “insignificant” words (i.e., not nouns or verbs) to hold them all together. Here’s a possible sentence, this time starting from the oldest and moving forward to the most recent:

Campers Order Silver Devils to Carry Persons Tricking Jurisprudent Cretins in Palmy Eons of Olive Milk and Pliant Pleadings for Holidays

The problem with both this and the “verse” is that they are too long, given their difficulty, to be readily memorable. The answer to this is organization, and later we’ll discuss how to use organization to reduce the mnemonic burden. But first, let’s deal with another problem.

Although the use of three-letter acronyms lessens the need for such deep familiarity with the items to be learned, you do still need to know the items. With names as strange as the ones used in the geological time-scale, the best strategy is probably the keyword mnemonic (or at least a simplified version).

Looking for meaning

But let’s start by considering the origin of the names. If they’re meaningful, if there is a logic to the naming that we can follow, our task will be made incomparably easier.

Unfortunately, in this case there’s not a lot of logic to the naming. Some of the periods are named after geographical areas where rocks from this period are common, or where they were first found — these are probably the easiest to learn. The epochs in particular, however, are problematic, as they are very similar, being based on ancient Greek (in which few students are now trained), and, most importantly of all, being essentially meaningless.

Let’s look at them in detail. The common cene ending comes from the Greek for new (ceno).

  • Holocene is from holos meaning entire
  • Pleistocene is from pleistos meaning most
  • Pliocene is from pleion meaning more
  • Miocene is from meion meaning less
  • Oligocene is from oligos meaning little, few
  • Eocene is from eos meaning dawn
  • Paleocene is from palaois meaning old

So we have

  • Holocene: entire new
  • Pleistocene: most new
  • Pliocene: more new
  • Miocene: less new
  • Oligocene: little new
  • Eocene: dawn new
  • Paleocene: old new

You could find this helpful (remember that we’re moving backward in time, so that the Holocene is indeed the newest of these, and the Paleocene is the oldest), but the naming is really too arbitrary and meaningless to be of great help.

Better to come up with associations that have more meaning, even if that meaning is imposed by you. Here’s some words you could use:

  • Holocene: holy; hollow; hologram; holly
  • Pleistocene: plasticine; plastic
  • Pliocene: pliable; pliant; pliers
  • Miocene: my; milo; myopic
  • Oligocene: oligarchy; olive; oliphaunt (! Notice that the words don’t have to be familiar to the whole world, even the dictionary-makers; the important thing is that they have significance to you)
  • Eocene: eon; enzyme; obscene (note that it is not necessary for the word to begin with the same letter(s) — a particularly difficult task in this instance; what’s important is whether the word will serve as a good link for you)
  • Paleocene: palace; palatial; paleolithic

To tie your chosen word to the word to be learned, you must form an association (that’s why it’s so important to choose a word that’s good for you — associations are very personal). For example, you could say:

  • Holograms are very recent (the Holocene is the most recent epoch)
  • Glaciers are plastic or My glaciers are made of plasticine (the Pleistocene was the time of the “Great Ice Age”)
  • The pliant Americas joined together or Pliable hominids arose (Hominidae began in the Pliocene, and North and South America joined up)
  • Mild weather saw Africa collide with Asia (the Miocene was warmer than the preceding epoch; during this time Africa finally connected to Eurasia)
  • Elephants become oligarchs! (during the Oligocene mammals became the dominant vertebrates)
  • Continents obscenely separate (Laurasia, the northern supercontinent, began to break up at the beginning of the Eocene; Gondwanaland, the southern supercontinent, continued its breakup)
  • Pale from the disaster, we pull ourselves together (the Paleocene marks the beginning of a new era, after the K-T boundary event (thought by many to be an asteroid impact) in which the dinosaurs and so much other life died)

Now this is not, of course, in strict accordance with the keyword method. According to this method, we should choose a word as phonetically similar to the word-to-be-learned as possible, and as concrete as possible, and then form a visual image connecting the two. While this is fine with learning a different language (the most common use for the keyword method, and the one for which it was originally designed), it is clearly very difficult to create an image for something as abstract and difficult to visualize as a period of time.

It’s also often difficult to find keywords that are both phonetically similar and concrete. We must improvise as best we may. What you need to bear in mind is that you are searching for an association that will stick in your mind, and link the unfamiliar (the information you are learning) to the familiar (information already well established in your mind).

With this in mind, look again at the suggested associations. This time, think in terms of whether you can make a picture in your mind.Holocene mnemonic image

Instead of “Holograms are very recent”, you might want to form an image of someone falling into a hole (tying the Holocene to the “Age of Humans”).

 

Glaciers made of plasticine might stand.Pleistocene mnemonic image

 

 

 

 

 

Pliocene mnemonic imageIf you can visualize very limber (perhaps in distorted postures) ape-like humans, Pliable hominids might be satisfactory, or you may need to fall back on the pliers — perhaps an image of pliers bringing North and South America together.

 

 

Miocene mnemonic imageMild weather isn’t terribly imageable; you might like to imagine milk pouring from the joint where Africa and Eurasia have collided.

 

 

Oligocene mnemonic imageOligarchs is likewise difficult, but you could visualize elephants under olive trees, eating the olives.

 

 

 

 

Eocene mnemonic imageAnd now of course, we come to the most difficult — the Eocene. Here’s a thought, for those brought up with Winnie the Pooh. If you have a clear picture of Eeyore, you could use him in this image. Perhaps Eeyore is standing on one part of the separating Laurasia (looking appropriately disconsolate).

 

 

Paleocene mnemonic image

The Paleocene might best be associated with a palace, if we’re looking for something imageable — perhaps dinosaurs sheltering in a palace as the asteroid comes down and destroys it.

 

You see from this that the demands of visual associations are often quite different from those of verbal associations. Both are effective. Whether you use verbal or visual associations should depend not only on your personal preference (some people find one easier, and some the other), but also on what the material best affords — that is, what is easiest, what comes more readily to mind, and also, which association will be less easily forgotten.

But mnemonics only take you so far. While very useful for learning new words, and for learning lists, they are not a good basis for developing an understanding of a subject — and unlike the situation of learning a language, a scientific topic definitely requires a more holistic approach. Mnemonics here are very much an adjunct strategy, not a complete solution. So before using mnemonics to fix specific hard-to-remember details in my brain, I would begin by organizing the information to be learned, with the goal of cutting it into meaningful chunks.

 

Excerpted from Mnemonics for Study

 

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Story mnemonic

The story method (sometimes called the sentence mnemonic) is the most easily learned list-mnemonic strategy, although it is not as widely known as the other simple methods we’ve talked about so far.

As its name suggests, the story method involves linking words to be learned in a story. While this is most obviously useful for learning actual lists, it can also be used for remembering the main points of a passage. In such a case, you need to reduce each point to a single word, which hopefully has the power to recall the whole point.

Let’s look at an example. First, an easy one — a list:

Vegetable Instrument College Carrot Nail Fence Basin Merchant Scale Goat

This can be transformed into:

A VEGETABLE can be a useful INSTRUMENT for a COLLEGE student. A CARROT can be a NAIL for your FENCE or BASIN. But a MERCHANT would SCALE that fence and feed the carrot to a GOAT.

But let’s face it , this is not a very probable list of words for you to memorize. The example is taken (with some modification) from a laboratory experiment1, and the few tests of the story mnemonic that there have been have tended to involve such lists of unrelated words. But learning lists of unrelated words is not something we need to do very often. And generally, if we do have lists of words to learn — say, the names of the elements in the periodic table — they’re going to be too technical to lend themselves readily to creating a story.

Even if the words themselves are not particularly technical, the nature of them is not likely to lend itself to a narrative. Let me show you what I mean. Consider the taxonomy of living things:

Kingdom

Phylum

Class

Order

Family

Genus

Species

Here’s an attempt at a story:

In the KINGDOM, PHYLUM is a matter of CLASS, but ORDER is a matter for FAMILY, and GENIUS lies in SPECIES.

The trouble with this is not the re-coding of genus to genius; the trouble is, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a sentence, but not a story — there’s no narrative. Humans think in stories. We find them easy to remember because they fit in with how we think. It follows then that the more effective story mnemonics will actually tell a story. To do that, we’re going to have to transform our technical words into more common words.

King Phillip went to the classroom to order the family genius to specifically name the individual who had stolen the taxi.

The last part of this is of course unnecessary — you could finish it after individual if you wished. But an important thing to remember is that it’s not about brevity. It’s about memorability. And memorability is not as much affected by amount to remember, as it is by the details of what is being remembered. So meaningfulness is really important. Adding that little detail about stealing the taxi adds meaningfulness (and also underlines what this mnemonic is about: taxonomy).

Here’s a longer example. Remember our hard-to-remember cranial nerves? This story was mentioned in a 1973 Psychology Today article by the eminent psychologist G.H. Bower2:

At the oil factory the optician looked for the occupant of the truck. He was searching because three gems had been abducted by a man who was hiding his face and ears. A glossy photograph had been taken of him, but it was too vague to use. He appeared to be spineless and hypocritical.

Here it is again with the nerves shown for comparison:

At the oil factory (olfactory) the optician (optic) looked for the occupant (oculomotor) of the truck (trochlear). He was searching because three gems (trigeminal) had been abducted (abducens) by a man who was hiding his face (facial) and ears (auditory). A glossy photograph (glossopharyngeal) had been taken of him, but it was too vague (vagus) to use. He appeared to be spineless (spinal accessory) and hypocritical (hypoglossal).

Notice how, with these technical words, they have been transformed into more familiar words — this is what I meant by saying the keyword method is a vital part of all these list-mnemonics.

 

Excerpted from Mnemonics for Study

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First-letter Mnemonics

The two types of first-letter mnemonics

First-letter mnemonics are, as their name suggests, memory strategies that use the initial letters of words as aids to remembering. This can be an effective technique because initial letters are helpful retrieval cues, as anyone who has endeavored to remember something by mentally running through the letters of the alphabet can attest to.

There are two types of first-letter mnemonic:

  • acronyms: initial letters form a meaningful word;
  • acrostics: initial letters are used as the initial letters of other words to make a meaningful phrase

ROY G. BIV is an acronym (for the colors of the rainbow), and Richard Of York Gives Battle In Vain is an acrostic for the same information.

Similarly, the acronym FACE is used to remember the notes in the spaces of the treble staff, and the acrostic Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit for the notes on the lines of the treble staff.

Here’s some more well-known ones. Some acronyms first:

MRS GREN — the characteristics of living things: Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion, Nutrition.

BEDMAS — the order of mathematical operations: Brackets, Exponent, Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction.

HOMES — the Great Lakes in the U.S.A.: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.

And some acrostics:

My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas — the order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.

Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle — the order of sharps in music

King Phillip Came Over From Great Spain — the order of categories in the taxonomy of living things: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species

It’s likely that you’ll know very different acrostics for these same items. That’s one difference between acronyms and acrostics — the same acronyms are likely to be known to everyone, but acrostics are much more varied. The reason’s not hard to seek — clearly there are infinite possibilities for acrostics, but very very limited possibilities for acronyms.

This means, of course, that opportunities to use acronyms are also very limited. It is only rarely that the initial letters of a group of items you wish to learn will form a word or series of words or at least a pseudo-word (a series of letters that do not form a word but are pronounceable as one — like BEDMAS).

Nothing is going to make MVEMJSUNP (the order of planets) memorable in itself, even if you break it up into vaguely intelligible bits, like this: M.V. Em J. Sun P. (although that does help — say it and you’ll see why).

Acrostics, on the other hand, are easy to create, and any string of items can be expressed in that form. For example:

My Very Earnest Mother Jumped Seven Umbrellas Near Paris

Men View Enemies Mildly Juiced Since United Nations Party

Michael Voted Every May Judiciously Since Union Newsletters Plunged

Problems with first-letter mnemonics

Medical students are probably the group who use first-letter mnemonics most. Here’s a medical example that demonstrates a common problem with first-letter mnemonics:

On Old Olympia’s Towering Top A Finn And German Vault And Hop

This is a mnemonic for remembering the cranial nerves: olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory, glossopharyngeal, vagus, accessory, and hypoglossal. Of course, reiterating my earlier point, the mnemonic wouldn’t help most of us remember this information, because we don’t know these names. But there’s another problem with this acrostic: three Os, two Ts and three As. This is a particular problem when the purpose of the acrostic is to remind you of the precise order of items, for obvious reasons. In such a case, you need to use words that distinguish between similar items. Thus, a better acrostic for our medical students might be:

Oliver Operates Occasional Tropical Tricks Absurdly For Australian Gymnasts Vaulting Actual Helicopters

Except that the traditional acrostic does have two big advantages that make it a much more memorable sentence: rhythm and rhyme. Say them both aloud, and you’ll see what I mean.

Let’s try for an acrostic that contains the vital information and is memorable.

Oliver Opens Oceans; Tropical Trips Abet; Fabulous Authors Gushing; Violent Acts Hinted

Okay, this isn’t very good either, and it took a little while to come up with. I’ve tried to distinguish the same-initial terms by including the second letter. The problem is, this additional constraint makes a big difference in limiting the possibilities.

Also, of course, creating an acrostic with rhyme and rhythm requires a great deal more work than simply creating a meaningful sentence. Rhyme and rhythm do, however, render the acrostic considerably more memorable.

In fact, were I trying to memorize the 12 cranial nerves, I wouldn’t use a first-letter mnemonic. Let us consider what you need to learn:

  • the names of each nerve
  • the function of each nerve
  • the order of each nerve

The cranial nerves are not simply in a particular order; they are numbered. This immediately suggests the appropriate mnemonic: the pegword mnemonic. And the need to remember some rather strange names, and associate this information with function, suggests another useful mnemonic: the keyword mnemonic.

 

Excerpted from Mnemonics for Study

 

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Coding mnemonics

Most people find numbers — phone numbers, personal identification numbers, dates, and so on — more difficult to remember than words. That is, of course, why businesses try to get phone numbers that correspond to some relevant word. The system whereby this is possible — the linking of certain letters to the different digits on a telephone calling pad —is a kind of coding mnemonic. Basically, coding mnemonics are systems that transform numbers into words.

Because words are much easier for most of us to remember, this is a good way to remember numbers, but it’s not the only one. If you have a facility for numbers, or an existing store of memorized numbers (dates, baseball scores, running times, whatever), you can use those memorized numbers or your understanding of mathematical patterns to remember new numbers. In one well-known experiment1, for example, the subject was able (after 250 hours of practice!) to recall up to 82 digits after hearing them at the rate of one digit a second. This subject was a runner, and used his knowledge of record times to make the digit strings more memorable.

The difficulty with a coding system is that you can’t use it effectively until you have fluently memorized the codes, to the extent that the linked letter (if encoding) or digit (if decoding) comes automatically to mind. This requirement makes this sort of mnemonic the costliest of all the mnemonics — that is, it takes the most time and effort to master.

Here is the best-known digit-letter code — it’s important to note the system is based on sound rather than actual letters, so various similar sounding letters are regarded as equivalent:


0 = s, z, soft c (zero starts with a s sound)

1 = t, d, th (there’s 1 downstroke in t)

2 = n (2 downstrokes in n)

3 = m (3 downstrokes in m)

4 = r (r is the last letter of four)

5 = l (l is 50 in Roman numbers)

6 = sh, ch, j, soft g (six has a sort of sh sound)

7 = k, q, hard g, hard c (number 7 is embedded in k)

8 = f, v (both 8 and f have two loops)

9 = p, b (9 is p the wrong way round)


Practical uses for coding mnemonics

In the study situation, there is quite a lot of numerical information that you might need or be interested in learning. Historical dates; mathematical formulae; geographical facts. Let’s look at how we can combine three different mnemonics to remember the lengths of the ten longest rivers (in miles):

  1. Nile (4140 miles)
  2. Amazon (3990 miles)
  3. Yangtse (3960 miles)
  4. Yenisei-Angara (3445 miles)
  5. Ob-Irtysh (3360 miles)
  6. Hwang Ho (3005 miles)
  7. Zaire/Congo (2900 miles)
  8. Amur (2800 miles)
  9. Mekong (2795 miles)
  10. Lena (2730 miles)

First, let’s use the coding mnemonic to convert the lengths:

  1. Nile 4140 = r-t-r-s = rotors, raiders, readers
  2. Amazon 3990 = m-p-p-s = my pipes
  3. Yangtse 3960 = m-p-sh-s = impish ass
  4. Yenisei-Angara 3445 = m-r-r-f = more or few, more rev
  5. Ob-Irtysh 3360 = m-m-sh-s = mommy shoes
  6. Hwang Ho 3005 = m-s-s-f = mass shave, miss safe
  7. Zaire/Congo 2900 = n-p-s-s = any passes
  8. Amur 2800 = n-f-s-s = no fusses
  9. Mekong 2795 = n-k-p-f = neck puff
  10. Lena 2730 = n-k-m-s = hen games

They’re not brilliant, I know. Sometimes numbers will fall nicely into meaningful words, but more often than not they won’t. Still, you’ll be surprised how much these rather weird phrases help.

Now we need to use the keyword mnemonic to turn the names of the rivers into something concrete and familiar.

Nile — nail

Yangtse — ant sea (a sea of ants)

Yenisei-Angara — nice anchor (nice is not concrete, but you can attach it by always thinking nice anchor when visualizing it)

Ob-Irtysh — (observe the) yurt

Hwang Ho — hanging (image of a noose hanging from a gallows)

Zaire/Congo — stair (not using Congo because of its similarity to Mekong)

Amur — a mule

Mekong — King Kong

Lena — lion

You’ll notice I didn’t give a keyword for Amazon; I felt the female Amazon would provide an adequate image.

Now we can use the pegword mnemonic to provide our ordered list. So we tie our keywords to the pegwords to produce the following images:

  1. a nail in a bun
  2. an Amazon with one big shoe
  3. a sea of ants around a tree
  4. an anchored door
  5. someone watching a yurt with a beehive hanging from its pole
  6. an axe among sticks next to the gallows
  7. stairway to heaven
  8. a mule nudging a gate
  9. King Kong drinking wine
  10. a lion ripping apart a hen

Once you’ve worked on visualizing these images and got them well down, you can then connect the images to your sentences. Don’t worry if your images aren’t as clear as you think they should be; I rely equally on the words as much as the images — but it helps to visualize as much as you can while thinking on the words.

Now you’ve got these word-images (and it really does take very little practice), you can stick the coded phrases on.

  1. a nail in a bun: rotors (helicopter blades) trying to lift the nailed bun
  2. an Amazon with one big shoe: tripping over her big shoe, she drops her blowpipes: My pipes! she cries
  3. a sea of ants around a tree: an impish ass (donkey) grins as he flicks ants at the tree
  4. an anchored door: the door strains to move against its anchor; I shout: More rev!
  5. someone watching a yurt with a beehive hanging from its pole: the observer is wearing mommy shoes
  6. an axe among sticks next to the gallows: a mass of people lining up to be shaved by the axe (mass shave)
  7. stairway to heaven: “any passes?” I ask anxiously
  8. a mule nudging a gate: going through easily; “no fusses
  9. King Kong drinking wine: big neck puff around his neck
  10. a lion ripping apart a hen: hen games!

It all sounds very strained and unnecessarily complicated if you simply read all this! You absolutely cannot appreciate this method until you try it. It really is much simpler than it appears (although still not a simple strategy). However, it is vital that you build up the strategy step by step. In this case, for example, you must be fully confident of the standard 1-10 pegwords (1 is a bun, etc) first; then you fix the rivers to the pegwords firmly; and finally you attach the coded phrases.

 

Excerpted from Mnemonics for Study

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Remembering names & faces

There are two well-established strategies for remembering people’s names. The simplest basically involves paying attention. Most of the time our memory for someone’s name fails because we never created an effective memory code for it.

An easy strategy for improving your memory for names

We can dramatically improve our memory for names simply by:

  • paying attention to the information
  • elaborating the information (e.g., “Everett? Is that with two t’s?”; “Rankin? Any relation to the writer?”; “Nielson? What nationality is that?”)
  • repeating the information at appropriate times.

The mnemonic strategy for remembering names and faces

The other method, of proven effectiveness but considerably more complicated, is a mnemonic strategy called the face-name association method.

You can find details of this strategy in most memory-improvement books, including my own. It is one of the most widely known and used mnemonic strategies, and it is undoubtedly effective when done properly. Like all mnemonic strategies however, it requires considerable effort to master. And as with most mnemonic strategies, imagery is the cornerstone. However, physical features are not necessarily the best means of categorizing a face.

What research tells us

Specific physical features (such as size of nose) are of less value in helping us remember a person than more global physical features (such as heaviness) or personality judgments (such as friendliness, confidence, intelligence). Rather than concentrating on specific features, we’d be better occupied in asking ourselves this sort of question: “Would I buy a used car from this person?”

However, searching for a distinctive feature (as opposed to answering a question about a specific feature, such as “does he have a big nose?”) is as effective as making a personality judgment. It seems clear that it is the thinking that is so important.

To remember better, think about what you want to remember.

Specifically, make a judgment (“she looks like a lawyer”), or a connection (“she’s got a nose like Barbara Streisand”). The connection can be a visual image, as in the face-name association strategy.

References: 

McCarty, D.L. 1980. Investigation of a visual imagery mnemonic device for acquiring face-name associations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 145-155.

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Mnemonics for learning languages

Keyword mnemonic

The one mnemonic strategy that has been investigated quite extensively by researchers is the keyword mnemonic. This has been used successfully in a variety of learning areas, but its chief use has been in the area of learning vocabulary.

The keyword mnemonic is certainly an effective technique, particularly for learning to read in another language, as opposed to writing or talking (where you have to actively remember the words you want, rather than simply recognize them when you see them). But I wouldn't advocate using the keyword mnemonic on 1000 words, or even most of them. I would keep it for the hard words. (Read more on the usefulness of the keyword mnemonic for learning vocabulary. Find out what the keyword method is here)

Linkword

This is essentially the keyword technique, but simplified by fact that someone else has done all the hard work. Dr Michael Gruneberg, a British academic who has done a lot of work in the area of practical mnemonics (a rare concern among academic researchers) formalized the Linkword technique for learning foreign languages, and has produced Linkword books for learning French, German, Spanish, and Italian.

The books aim to quickly teach you a few hundred words of your chosen language (my own count of words taught in the German book was 355), by giving you a linking image to use. Thus, for Raupe (German for caterpillar), you are told to imagine a caterpillar with a rope attached to its middle.

As you would expect (Dr Gruneberg does know his stuff), the books are designed with an eye to fundamental memory principles. Words are grouped according to category; only ten words are given at a time; words are reviewed, etc. Simple grammar points are also included. It's well organized, and I do think it's an excellent way for a beginner to get a quick introduction to the language.

Apart from my general criticisms and warnings about the keyword technique (for which, see my article), my principle caveat is the difficulty in forming the visual images. For example, for Hummer (German for lobster), we are told to imagine a lobster with a sense of humor. Similarly, for Motte (German for moth), we are told to imagine that our personal motto is "I like moths". Personally, I don't find it particularly easy to visualize these "images". Now, I mean no criticism of Dr Gruneberg, the difficulty is experienced by anyone trying to find images to express verbal connections; some words just don't lend themselves to being images. But of course, verbal mnemonics are just as memorable as visual mnemonics, and infinitely more flexible. I assume, although he doesn't say it, that Dr Gruneberg means by "image" something more movie-like, with a sound track.

There are also Linkword courses available, in a wider variety of languages, and for some languages, at more advanced levels (this link is for a British site; here's a U.S. site).

Linkword books available from Amazon

List-learning mnemonics

The various list-learning mnemonics - the method of loci, the pegword method, the link method, the story method - can all be adapted to help you learn lists of words. In general, learning lists is not a particularly useful technique for learning a language, however, there are some circumstances in which it can be helpful.

If you do need to remember a list, my own recommendation is the story mnemonic, unless you are already expert at one of the other techniques. The advantage of the story mnemonic is that it is very simple to master.

Here's an example of its use. I'm brushing up my Latin, and like to run through the various conjugations and declensions in my head before going to sleep (it's wonderfully soothing!). To ensure I cover them all, I've devised the following mnemonics:

I love to advise those who rule that sums are fooey. [1st conjugation: amo, I love; 2nd conjugation: moneo, I advise; 3rd conjugation: rego, I rule; irregular verb to be: sum, I am; fui, I have been]

At the table the daughter awaits the master; the son awaits the god in the field where the boys go to war. The king tells the legion his name is a burden. The citizen lies on his couch in the city. [1st to 3rd declensions, with variants]

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Visual Vs Verbal Mnemonic Techniques

  • There is no special magic about visual images.
  • Whether verbal or visual mnemonic techniques are better for learning depends partly on the learning material, partly on the nature of the learning task, and partly on the individual.
  • Older adults in general are probably better advised to use verbal mnemonics.
  • There is no particular advantage to using bizarre images.

Most mnemonic strategies use visual images. But as I say in The myth of imagery, while there is no doubt that imagery can be an effective tool, there is nothing particularly special about it. The advantage of imagery is that it provides an easy way of connecting information that is not otherwise readily connected. However, providing verbal links can be equally effective.

One study that compared verbal and visual imagery methods for remembering serial items (lists of words) found that using a verbal strategy resulted in equal performance on both lists of items rated as "high imagery" and "medium imagery". The two visual imagery techniques (method of loci, and pegword) resulted in higher performance than the verbal strategy for the high-imagery list, but poorer performance for the medium-imagery list [5].

A more recent study found that connecting three nouns by imagery was more beneficial for immediate unexpected recall than relating them by sentence, however, after a week, recall was the same for both techniques [3].

It is well-established that people differ in their abilities to visualize, and clearly the usefulness of visual imagery is partly dependent on whether you are a "high-imager" or a "low-imager" (but don't be fooled by these categorical labels - people will vary along a continuum rather than fall into an either-or category).

This talent also seems to change over the course of one's life. It has been suggested that older adults in particular might be better advised to use verbal mnemonics rather than visual image techniques, as they apparently find it difficult to produce and remember visual images ([7]; [1]).

Not entirely independent of these individual differences, there is also a significant difference between the effectiveness of visual images presented to you and those you must generate for yourself.

There is also some evidence that imagery techniques are more effective in particular types of memory tasks compared to others. Herrmann [2] suggested that interactive imagery was the most effective strategy for paired associate learning (linking two items together), but a story mnemonic was most effective for free recall (remembering various items in any order).

On a related subject, a study that looked into the usefulness of bizarre imagery as a mnemonic aid found that bizarre images were remembered better in the immediate term but not the long term, and only if the images were experienced as part of a mixed list (bizarre and non-bizarre items), and the learner could control their pace of learning [4]. A number of studies have failed to find any particular benefit to constructing bizarre images, and indeed, have suggested that bizarre images take longer to construct and may result in poorer performance. Most recently, the bizarreness advantage in mixed lists was eliminated when alternative retrieval strategies were encouraged [6]. These researchers suggested that the advantage of bizarreness depends on your retrieval strategy (whether or not it is based on distinctiveness).

In sum, then, I would say that use of visual imagery is an entirely personal matter, that there is no clear superiority of visual over verbal techniques, and that (as always) it comes down to individual idiosyncracy. Don't feel pressured into using imagery if you're not easy with it. And if you are comfortable with imagery, still restrict your use of the technique to situations where the images come easily - don't spend more time on constructing images than is warranted; be open to using other techniques. There's no magic to visual imagery. Meaningfulness, organization, depth of processing are the crucial elements in learning, not the precise tools you use to get there.

References: 

  1. Baltes, P. B., & Kliegl, R. (1992). Further testing of limits of cognitive plasticity: Negative age differences in a mnemonic skill are robust. Developmental Psychology, 28, 121-125.
  2. Herrmann, D.J. 1987. Task appropriateness of mnemonic techniques. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 64, 171-178.
  3. Hishitani, S. 1985. Coding strategies and imagery differences in memory. Japanese Psychological Research,27(3),154-162.
  4. Iaccino, J. F., & Sowa, S. J. 1989. Bizarre imagery in paired-associate learning: An effective mnemonic aid with mixed context, delayed testing and self-paced conditions. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 68, 307-316.
  5. Marston, P.T. & Young, R.K. 1974. Multiple Serial List Learning with Two Mnemonic Techniques.
  6. McDaniel, M.A., DeLosh, E.L. & Merritt, P.S. 2000. Order information and retrieval distinctiveness: Recall of common versus bizarre material. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26(4), 1045-1056.
  7. Poon, L. W., Walsh-Sweeney, L., & Fozard, J. L. (1980). Memory skill training for the elderly: Salient issues on the use of imagery mnemonics. In L. W. Poon, J. L. Fozard, L. S. Cermak, D. Arenberg, & L. W. Thompson, (Eds.), New directions in memory and aging: Proceedings of the George A Talland Memorial Conference (pp. 461-484). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

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List-learning strategies

Guide to Use

  • To be used effectively, you need to be able to create images quickly
  • To be used effectively, all steps need to be properly implemented
  • They help you learn faster, not better
  • They are useful for:
    • learning the right order
    • memorizing retrieval cues
    • anchoring many details

The method of loci or place method

This is the classic mnemonic strategy, dating back to the ancient Greeks, and is (as evident from its continued use over 2500 years) an extremely effective strategy for remembering lists.

First of all, you choose a place you know very very well. Perhaps a familiar route, your house, or a particular room in it. Any place that you know well enough to easily call to mind various ‘landmarks’ (different fixed objects in a room, for example). You must train yourself to go around your landmarks in a particular order. With a route of course, that is easy.

Thus, to remember a shopping list, you simply imagine each item in turn at these landmarks. A loaf of bread sticking out of the letterbox; a giant apple in place of the door; the hall full of beans; a giant banana in the bath, etc.

Because the place method uses cues that are already well-known to you, it is probably the easiest of the imagery mnemonics to master.

Disadvantages

  • difficult to recall a particular item without going through the list in order until you reach the item you want.
  • most effective as a relatively short-term strategy (By using the landmarks again and again, you can only readily recall the last list. Earlier lists are much less easily recalled.)
  • difficult to use if the information is presented too fast

The pegword mnemonic

uses numbers instead of places. These numbers are transformed into visual images by means of the following simple rhyme:

one is a bun
two is a shoe
three is a tree
four is a door
five is a hive
six is sticks
seven is heaven
eight is a gate
nine is a line
ten is a hen

The rhyme must be learned by rote until it is over-learned. Accordingly, there is a higher ‘cost’ to the pegword method than to the place method, where cues already over-learned are used.

Disadvantages

  • most effective as a relatively short-term strategy (By using the landmarks again and again, you can only readily recall the last list. Earlier lists are much less easily recalled.)
  • difficult to use if the information is presented to you too fast
  • difficult to use effectively without extensive training.

The link method

like the others, uses visual images to link items together. However, instead of linking items to a well-learned structure, items are linked to each other. For example, to remember our shopping list of bread, apples, beans, bananas, you would form an image of the bread interacting with apples in some way, then another image of apples and beans, then another image bringing beans and bananas together.

The story method

is the verbal equivalent of the link method. Items are chained together by linking them in a story. For example, A VEGETABLE can be a useful INSTRUMENT for a COLLEGE student. A carrot can be a NAIL for your FENCE or BASIN. But a MERCHANT of the QUEEN would SCALE that fence and feed the carrot to a GOAT.

Disadvantages of Link and Story Methods

  • difficult to recall a particular item without going through the list in order until you reach the item you want.
  • difficult to use if the information is presented too fast.
  • difficult to use effectively without extensive training.

References: 

  • Belleza, F.S. 1983. Mnemonic-device instruction with adults. In Pressley, M. & Levin, J.R. (eds.) Cognitive strategy research: Psychological foundations. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Bower, G.H. & Reitman, J.S. 1972. Mnemonic elaboration in multilist learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 478-485.
  • Morris, P.E. 1979. Strategies for learning and recall. In M.M. Gruneberg & P. Morris (eds.) Applied problems in memory. London: Academic Press.

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