Types of mnemonic
A mnemonic can be in the form of a word, where each letter signifies something specific, or a rhyme or poem, or a little song you made up, or anything really, as long as the components of it make you think of the more detailed thing you need to remember.
The word ‘mnemonic’ comes from the Ancient Greek word meaning ‘of memory’. And a mnemonic usually consists of something easily remembered (a word, a rhyme, etc) that you have linked to something more complicated or obscure. This is based on the notion that something personal, or funny, or strange, or sexy, is not just easy to remember but actually difficult to forget. So if you can link that unusual or strange or personal thing to something that’s hard to remember, then suddenly it’s not so hard anymore.
Memory by association
Mnemonics are at the core of all memory systems, since whatever system you’re using it’s likely that somewhere along the line you have to link something to something else, and the way you do that is to associate the subject matter to something already well known. In short, all memory is by association, and using mnemonics is just a way of organising association.
Mnemonics are probably the oldest form of memory aid. The Greeks and Romans used them effectively thousands of years ago, and in fact they developed really sophisticated memory systems based on mnemonics. Modern-day memory masters perform prodigious feats of memory using the same basic system. I challenge anyone to try to memorise several packs of shuffled playing cards in the correct order without such a system; it simply wouldn’t be possible.
Mnemonics can be made up from almost anything, but a few of the most commonly used types can be categorised as follows:
Acronym – where you use the initial letters of a string of words, or the letters of a single word. An example of this type of mnemonic might be HOMES, where the letters that make up the word help you remember the individual lakes in the Great Lakes system (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). This works well because the names of the lakes aren’t actually obscure, but to remember them all, without the aid of a mnemonic, might present you with a problem.
Acrostic – this is where the first letter of each word recalls one of the elements of the thing to be remembered. A good example of this is the mnemonic for remembering the planets of the Solar System, in order of position from the Sun:
My Very Easy Method: Just Say, Understood Now
(Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn,Uranus, Neptune)
Another acrostic example:
King Philip’s Class Ordered a Family of Gentle Spaniels
(Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species)
This one is particularly well made since some of the words in the mnemonic phrase are the actual words to be remembered. <
Rhyme – a well-known example of this type of mnemonic is “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. And there’s nothing special about the rhyme, except that it links the fact to the date. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you coming up with new ones – you could use any tune you’re familiar with, from childhood rhymes to well known tunes of the present day.
Images – you can link an image of something you’re familiar with to the thing to be remembered in such a way that one makes you think of the other. An example of this would be if you were trying to remember that someone you just met was called Lionel and you imagined a lion sitting at his feet. You probably wouldn’t have much trouble remembering his name next time you met him – you’d immediately ‘see’ the lion at his feet and his name would come to you in a flash (something similar could be applied to Carolyne, of course, only this time your mental image of her would have her singing carols as the lion sat patiently at her feet). Unfortunately, not all names suggest images so readily, but you can often split a name up into parts, some of which might lend themselves more easily to be used in a mnemonic.
Aspects of mnemonics
- Action and interactivity – make the ‘players’ in your images active, make them do things, make them affect each other. Introduce slapstick, if you see the opportunity. Seeing one character slapping the other with a fish, or poking the other with an umbrella, or slipping on a banana skin and crashing into another will be infinititely more memorable than just seeing them standing next to each other.
- Colour and sound – although it’s the production of just a few moments, there’s nothing stopping you giving it the production values of a Hollywood blockbuster. If someone’s slapping someone with a wet fish, make sure you hear that s-l-a-p, and see the slimy effect of wet fish on slapped skin! If someone’s sliding and crashing into someone else, make sure you hear them screech and yell, hear the crashing sound effects, see and hear the clothing ripping or stretching, and so on.
- Varying dimensions – one of the simplest things that can make an image more memorable is to change the size of the things in the image. You can make things very small, so that they appear to fit in the palm of your hand (imagine lifting your hand and mentally seeing a remembered scene taking place literally in the palm of your hand), or you can make them huge (seeing some monstrous image overshadowing city centre buildings will probably leave more of a mental impression than seeing them stacked on a kitchen table).
- Music and rhythm – if you can make up a simple rhyme or song that incorporates and links the elements you need to remember, you’ll not only remember them more effectively, you’ll do it with a smile on your face.
- Excitement, action, sex – yes, all the things that go to make a blockbuster! And you can do it without signing up the top players in Hollywood. Just make sure that the action you have in your little mental movie is of a crowd-pleasing nature, even though the crown you have in mind consists of just one – yourself (hey, that means it doesn’t have to pass the censor!).
- Danger – if there’s a way you can include a cliff-hanger moment into it, go for it! A car teetering off the edge of a cliff, a person standing on the edge of a high building, a car chase, someone brandishing a weapon … anything like that can make your little movie gem unforgettable. Make your mental movie interesting and with a hint of danger and you’ll have trouble forgetting it.
- Incongruity – it just means that things just shouldn’t work that way. Example: see a load of cooked spaghetti spilling out of the sides of a truck (each piece the size of a hose pipe), with meat sauce slithering off the spaghetti and giant meat balls bouncing out and hitting other vehicles on the motorway. If you need to remember to get your truck re-insured and, by the way, you need to book a table at that nice Italian restaurant you like, then this’ll probably help you remember it better than a scribbled note (that you might well lose anyway).
- And more! – another example of incongruity would be to combine things in an unusual or ridiculous way – imagine, for example, that your truck is parked inside the restaurant, and it’s twice normal size, and you’ve just climbed out of it to have your meal. The strangeness of the imagined situation is what makes it mentally ‘sticky’.
What NOT to do
Be careful you don’t set things up in your mind so that they obey the normal rules of logic, or they’re so boring that you’re not giving yourself a fair chance at remembering them. Don’t make your little mental movies like this:
- Monochrome – make everything black-and-white, pale and washed out
- Silent movie – have them all mouthing words you can’t hear
- Nice and logical – everything the right size and in the correct order
- Safe – everything’s as it should be and there’s no hint of danger
If you follow these guidelines on what to do and what not to do you’ll find making up mnemonics is a piece of cake. And it works! You’ll be making up little memory triggers at the drop of a hat. Just remember, they don’t have to make sense (they really shouldn’t), they don’t have to mean something to anyone else (no-one else will ever see them), and it doesn’t matter how silly they are, or how weird (actually, the weirder the better!).
Mnemonics might seem, at first glance, to be no more than a memory ‘trick’, but using this so-called trick you can actually build up a really solid bank of information about a subject. For example, art students studying famous painters can learn to recognise certain aspects of each artist’s style, and memorise it using some form of mnemonic. Later on, faced with an array of assorted works, the students can recognise particular works of art as having been done by specific painters. So, far from being some kind of trick, mnemonics form a genuine learning technique, and one that, along the way, helps you remember what you learn.
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