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Choosing the Right Mnemonic at the Right Time

Posted Apr 24 2009 7:22am

Memory mnemonics are simple techniques to help you remember what you want to remember. A mnemonic is as easy as, "One two, buckle my shoe; three four, shut the door; five six, pick up sticks." Many people learned that simple number rhyme before they ever even heard the word mnemonic, yet, it's an example of a mnemonic.

To use a mnemonic, all you have to do is

  • Decide what you want to remember
  • Match what you want to remember with an image or word cue
  • Refer to the cue to recall your memory

Think of mnemonics as a way for you to organize information so you can later recall it more easily. The word mnemonic actually means, "aiding memory." You can structure or package your memories so they are easily available to you. A mnemonic is like a thread that, when you pull it, has a whole string of memories attached.

Not all mnemonic systems work the same for everyone. Just as people are unique, so are their needs and preferences. What you find useful may be useless to your neighbor and vice versa.

Choose a mnemonic that works for you

Choose the mnemonic that fits best with your personality and familiarity. Doing so can increase your chances of remembering your memory-aid in the future.

To use mnemonic aids effectively, consider the following basic principles.

Make sure the mnemonic:

  • Gets your attention.
  • Contains an easy association.
  • Is organized in such a way that it's easy for you to remember.
  • Is meaningful to you.

Don't rely on a mnemonic technique that you've read about if you already have one that suits you personally. Each person's life experience is different, and people will respond to images in their own way.

Mnemonics that grab your attention and make remembering fun are always more effective. If your mnemonic is stale and boring, you'll tend to forget it. Make the mnemonic stand out by making it silly, funny, absurd, or even titillating.

Settle on a mnemonic that fits the situation

If your mnemonic has little to do with what you're trying to remember, you'll probably forget it. For example, for your biology class, you're trying to remember that the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador have one of the widest ranges of unique animal species, including aquatic dragon lizards.

You may think of mnemonics like these:

  • The Ecuadorean flag. A flag image probably won't grab your attention, compared to a more vivid and evocative image.
  • A knight fighting off a dragon just outside a medieval castle. You're trying to associate the dragon lizards on the Galapagos Islands with the image of castles and knights. Remember, you're trying to recall the Galapagos Islands, not the British Isles.
  • A huge number of gallon containers with dragon lizards crawling out. With the word gallon, you have a link to the word Galapagos Islands, and you have added the lizards. You also want to make sure that you organize your imagery in such a way to carry the broader point, namely that not only are there aquatic lizards on the Galapagos Islands, but a wide range of animals. In this case, you may want to envision the gallon containers brimming over with a wide variety of living creatures, in addition to the dragon lizards.
  • Darwin's boat, the Beagle, anchored in the bay, and hundreds of gallons of containers on shore, brimming over with life. You want to make sure that there's personal meaning to the image you're trying to remember, and for me, an actual image from history works: Darwin's boat. The overall concept of the Galapagos Islands should represent a geographical location so remote that living species have evolved differently from others on the mainland.

Taking shortcuts: They're okay

Although the visual mnemonic route (the Link system) can potentially carry much more than just one image, the lack of time you have could make identifying an image impractical in some situations.

Visual mnemonics take much more time for you to develop than do peg, link, story, or phonetic mnemonics. When you don't have a lot of time and need to develop a quick way to remember something important, using a peg may be wiser.

For example, if you're listening to a lecture and don't have a notepad, then you'll end up in the dust when the lecturer moves on to another subject while you're trying to conjure up a visual image.

One of the advantages the Peg system has over the story, phonetic, or link systems is that you can select individual items from a list. In contrast, the link system relies on a sequence. Like the Loci system, which depends on prememorized location-connected links, the Peg system use prememorized word or number links. With the Peg system, that information connects to nouns.

The more complex or abstract the noun, the more vulnerable it may be to association with other words or ideas. The nouns are most useful if they are concrete nouns.

Whatever mnemonic system you use, make sure that it's flexible and meets the demands of what you're trying to remember. Practice using mnemonics so that you'll be versatile in their use. Mnemonics have a long history and have been used all over the world. You can make them work for you.

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