mnemonics

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

 

tags strategies: 

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

tags strategies: 

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.

Find out more about the pegword mnemonic

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.

tags strategies: 

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]

tags strategies: 

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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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.

tags strategies: 

Verbal mnemonics

  • Coding mnemonics are the most effective means of memorizing numbers.
  • Coding mnemonics can also be used to dramatically extend the value of the pegword method.
  • First-letter mnemonics are most effective for learning the order of well-learned information.
  • First-letter mnemonics can be useful for overcoming memory blocks.
  • The story method is an effective means of learning lists.

Coding mnemonic

Coding mnemonics are used for encoding numbers. Because words are much easier for most of us to remember, a system that transforms numbers into letters is one of the best ways for remembering numbers — as seen in the modern innovation of encoding phone numbers into letters (0800-ANSETT).

A coding system is very useful for remembering numbers, but it must be said that few people have sufficient need to memorize long numbers to make the initial cost of learning the code acceptable.

The coding system’s main value in fact is as a source of pegs for the pegword system. By allowing numbers to be encoded as easily remembered words, the number of pegs can be extended from ten into infinity. Lists of such pegwords are available in various memory improvement books.

Clearly of course, mastery of such a system requires a very large investment of time and effort, as well as a facility for image creation. But if you decide that the pegword strategy is for you, you should certainly increase its value by learning a coding system.

Such systems have been suggested for memorizing such information as appointments, and birthdays and anniversaries. There is no evidence that mnemonic strategies are particularly effective for tasks in the planning memory domain and most people find external strategies — diaries, calendars, watch alarms — more dependable and easier to use.  Find out more

First-letter mnemonics

First-letter mnemonics are probably the most widely used mnemonic. This reflects the popularity of specific mnemonics, rather than its wide use as a strategic tool.

There are two types of first-letter mnemonic: acronyms in which the initial letters form a meaningful word — such as FACE for the notes in the spaces of the treble staff — and acrostics in which the initial letters are used as the initial letters of other words to make a meaningful phrase — such as Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit for the notes on the lines of the treble staff.

First letter mnemonics are a very effective means of recalling the order of well-learned items. First letter mnemonics are a cueing strategy — they remind us of what we already know. They are therefore particularly effective as a means to overcome memory blocks — for example, for students whose minds ‘go blank’ in exams.  Find out more

The story method

The story method is another list-learning strategy. It is the verbal equivalent of the link method. Items are chained together by linking them in a story. This method is as effective as the imagery methods for learning lists. Which one will be most effective for you depends on which type of information (words or images) you deal with most easily.  Find out more

References: 

  • Bower, G.H. & Clark, M.C. 1969. Narrative stories as mediators for serial learning. Psychonomic Science, 14, 181-182.
  • Gruneberg, Michael M. 1992. The practical application of memory aids. In M.M. Gruneberg, & P. Morris (eds). Aspects of memory. Vol.1: The practical aspects. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
  • Morris, P.E. 1978. Sense and nonsense in traditional mnemonics. In M.M. Gruneberg, P.E. Morris & R.N. Sykes (eds.) Practical aspects of memory. London: Academic Press.
  • Morris, P.E. 1979. Strategies for learning and recall. In M.M. Gruneberg & P. Morris (eds.) Applied problems in memory. London: Academic Press.

tags strategies: 

The Art of Memory

Frances Yates described the memory strategy valued by the ancient Greeks and Romans as the "Art of Memory" in her widely quoted and seminal book The Art of Memory. Today we know it as the method of loci. But the Art of Memory, as those of the ancient world and those of the medieval world practiced it, is far richer than is implied by that title.

It is known to us from three Roman sources – Cicero, an anonymous work Ad C. Herennium libri IV, and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria. The strategy itself, although developed by many in later centuries, has always been attributed to Simonides, a Greek of the 5th century B.C. Cicero emphasizes that Simonides is given the credit for the art of memory not simply because he discovered how important order is for memory, but also because of his emphasis on the importance of visualization.

The original concept of Simonides, as encapsulated in the much-quoted and memorable story associated with this discovery, was simple enough. As the story goes (abbreviated version), Simonides was called out of a banqueting hall and during his absence, there was an earthquake and the hall collapsed, killing everyone inside. The destruction was so great the bodies couldn't be identified, but Simonides visualized where everyone was sitting, and so enabled the bodies to be identified.

Order and imagery. The twin staples of mnemonics.

But the truly interesting aspect of this is how this simple idea was developed over the centuries. And the meaning (indeed, multiple meanings) it developed.

According to Mary J. Carruthers in her wonderful work The Book of Memory: A study of memory in medieval culture, medieval European scholasticism was fundamentally memorial. Now this is not particularly surprising - books were handwritten, and obviously far less available than now.

But Carruthers points to something far more interesting - a trained memory was considered moral.

Following the Roman rhetorician Cicero (deeply admired by the medieval scholars), memory was considered to be one of the "virtues", and necessary to develop a moral character. Hence the rote learning so despised in our modern age: schoolchildren learned by heart the wise sayings of great men, so that they could also develop wisdom. Only by making moral arguments part of your character, known so well that the words are engraved in your heart, could you become moral.

I can see their point. Doubtless it is no coincidence that, today, this type of learning tends to occur only in fundamentalist religious education. Nor that its absence in education appears to have gone hand-in-hand with a disavowal of any sort of moral instruction. But the association of morality with memory is a fascinating and, to me at least, unexpected one.

Because of this association with morality, so fundamental to the medieval mind, mnemonic strategies were part of education, part of writing - books (according to Carruthers) were decorated for memorability. She even suggests that Dante's great work, his description of the circles of Hell, was actually a mnemonic device, to help people remember the places and attributes of Hell. This is not as weird as it sounds (well actually it is), because people used such descriptions as "memory places" (loci). The grotesque (to modern eyes) and shocking sculptuary in churches, paintings, drawings seen in the margins of books, all these, Carruthers suggests, were not so much because of some inexplicable twist of the medieval mind, as because they were intent on following the mnemonic principles they had been taught - provoking emotional reactions to enhance memorability.

Indeed, this is one of the (many) ideas I have found particularly intriguing: there is great emphasis from these pre-modern writers about memory, on the need to involve the emotions, to get yourself into a state as it were.

This is a particularly interesting point, because it is largely overlooked in modern memory advice (including my own!). I think the reason it is overlooked is simply because of modern sensibilities. Western culture, especially the scholastic, de-emphasizes emotion. It is therefore fascinating to read Carruthers' accounts of the emotional "states" which some pre-modern scholars seemed to find it necessary to work themselves into, when memorizing. Perhaps most interesting is that these scholars did not make the modern distinction between memory for personal events and information, and memory for "facts" - they understood that, for more effective remembering, all information had to be made into a personal event.

All mnemonic advice stresses the benefits to be gained from forming memories as “scenes” that include personal associations. Hugh of St Victor, for instance, stresses the need to impress the circumstances during which something was memorized as part of the associational web needed to recall it: the sort of day it is, how one feels, the gestures and appearance of one's teacher, the appearance of the manuscript page, and so on.”
(Mary Carruthers: The Book of Memory, p60)

Of course, the emotional component of memory also has an effect through its effect on motivation.

Another thing that struck me was how much ancient and medieval scholars understood about the practical aspects of memory - an understanding which seems to have got lost in the intervening centuries, buried beneath more arcane and complicated mnemonic strategies.

The mystique of these strategies seems to appeal to something in the human mind - the very complexity hints at something special, something magical. I am not decrying mnemonic strategies; they are certainly effective. But the more complex ones do require a great deal of training to be used effectively, and few people really want to put that degree of effort into something that, while potentially useful, is not, for most of us, as useful as all that.

But there are effective memory strategies that don't require so much effort to master, and the pre-modern scholars (at least in early times) understood the basic principles that underlie these:

  • the need to break things up into manageable chunks
  • the need for complete concentration (indeed it was suggested that night time was the best time to engage in memory work, because of the quiet and lack of distraction)
  • the usefulness of reading aloud in a low murmur (if you ever saw the movie Yentl, you might recall the students learning the Talmud doing the same thing).

The need to break things up into manageable chunks is a piece of advice that doesn't seem to be emphasized much in the increasingly complex mnemonic schemes that developed much later, and yet it is probably the single most important principle.

As to exactly what people did to learn information, to make memorable associations, it was recognized that these were matters for the individual, that different methods suited different people (and of course, different materials and different purposes):

"All ancient mnemonic advice [counsels] that any learned technique must be adapted to individual preferences and quirks. One cannot use a “canned” system, nor will every system work equally well for everyone.”
(ibid, p64)

When you're looking for a method of learning that will suit you, emotional affinity is as important as any other factor.

References & further resources

Yates, Frances A. 1966. The Art of Memory (Amazon affiliate link)

Carruthers, Mary. 1990. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) New York: Cambridge University Press. (Amazon affiliate link)

Carruthers, Mary. 1998. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Amazon affiliate link)

review: http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n22cameron

reply by Carruthers: http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n38carruthers

A word of warning. Carruthers' books are not really aimed at the lay audience. Carruthers is clearly writing for her peers, those familiar with Latin and Greek, and the classic and medieval cultures.

Parts of this article originally appeared in the February and April 2002 newsletters.

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The myth of imagery

  • Images are effective to the extent that they link information.
  • Images are not inherently superior to words.
  • Bizarre images are not necessarily recalled better than common images.
  • Imagery is chiefly effective when used with an organizing structure.

Most mnemonic strategies are based on imagery. There is no doubt that imagery can be an effective tool, but there is nothing particularly special about imagery. 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.

The critical element is that words or images provide a context which links the information. Thus, imagery is only effective when it is an interactive image — one which ties together one bit of information with another.

Visual imagery on its own is of limited value without an organizing structure, such as the method of loci or the pegword method (see list-learning mnemonics).

It is usually emphasized that bizarre images are remembered much better, but there is no evidence for this. In many studies indeed, ordinary images are remembered slightly better. One of the problems is that people tend usually find it harder to create bizarre images. Unless you have a natural talent for thinking up bizarre images, it is probably not worth bothering about.

Further reading:

for a long, scholarly article on mental imagery, you can see the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mental-imagery/

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. 1972. Mental imagery and associative learning. In L.W. Gregg (ed.) Cognition in learning and memory. New York: Wiley.
  • Morris, P.E. 1978. Sense and nonsense in traditional mnemonics. In M.M. Gruneberg, P.E. Morris & R.N. Sykes (eds.) Practical aspects of memory. London: Academic Press.

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