Memory Tip #8: Make Associations And Analogies; Connect Newly Acquired Information With Stuff You Already Know

making associations memory

“Creativity is, in a sense, future memory.” Tony Buzan

Mnemosyne, the personification of memory in Greek mythology, was the daughter of Gaia (goddess of Earth) and Uranus (god of the sky) and, quite interestingly, the mother of the nine Muses. These latter, in turn, were the goddesses of the inspiration of literature, science and the arts. They were considered the source of knowledge, related orally for centuries in the ancient culture that was contained in poetic lyrics and myths.

Mnemosyne, is, you might have guessed, the source of the word mnemonic. The notion that memory and creativity are two sides of the same coin sounds counter-intuitive, but this notion has been around as far back as when Socrates and Plato were busy laying down the foundations of Western philosophy. Remembering and creativity, especially in this modern day and age, seem like opposite, not complementary, processes. But the idea that they are one and the same is indeed quite old, and was once even taken for granted. The Latin root inventio is the basis of two words in our modern English vocabulary: inventory and invention. And to a mind trained in the art of memory, those two ideas were closely linked. Invention was a product of inventorying.

“Where do new ideas come from if not some alchemical blending of old ideas?”, asks Joshua Foer in “Moonwalking with Einstein.” In order to invent, one first needs a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on. Not just an inventory, but an indexed inventory. One needs a way of finding just the right piece of information at just the right moment, and this was especially true before advances in technology that externalized knowledge. In other words, it takes knowledge to gain knowledge, and it takes knowledge to remember new knowledge much more effectively, as I pointed out in Memory Tip #7.

“It turns out the seeds of remembering or forgetting are laid from the very first time you approach an idea,” says Scott Young. “By using brain scans from fMRI machines, while people are in the process of learning a new fact, scientists can tell, just by using the scan, whether that fact will be recalled correctly later. This suggests memory has a lot more to do with how you learn, and less about what takes place in the intervening time.”

Learning the right way, the first time, can therefore produce dramatic differences in how much we can recall, even long periods of time later. And the goal of training one’s memory is to develop the capacity to make new connections between old ideas, and to connect seemingly unrelated words, names, or data by drawing from your experiences and imagination. Connecting the new with the old is often done through clever use of analogies and metaphors (which works especially well for ideas or concepts) and through, of course, the use of mnemonics.

As Dominic O’Brien says in “You Can Have an Amazing Memory“, instant association is an important aspect of memory training, because first associations will prove to be the most reliable. “Your past provides you with learning and you need to use that learning to create pathways from one thing to another. Everything in your life fits together like pieces of a jigsaw. To get from one piece of the jigsaw to another, you can link them piece by piece. The most efficient way to create that pathway is to use the fewest pieces of the jigsaw possible – to find the most obvious connections from your of knowledge.” An example he gives for remembering two unrelated words is worth quoting at length:

Here’s [an] example: pen and soup. In what ways can you connect them so that you remember them both? Using free association and my imagination, I come up with the following possibilities: use the pen to stir the soup (perhaps the soup changes colour as the ink from the pen mixes in); use the pen to make a pattern or perhaps write a word in the thick soup; fill the pen with soup as though it were ink to write a letter; use the pen as a straw for the soup; and so on. Although the connections to my past aren’t obvious in this example, all the associations draw upon my experience and understanding of both a pen and a bowl of soup. Memory and association are inseparable.

Here’s an additional example to really hammer down this concept. Let’s say you’re at a party and are introduced to a group of new friends. There is John, Luke, Julie, and Mary. By using your own experiences, interests, and knowledge, and using these to make associations, you have the ability to easily remember these names quickly and embed them into your long-term memory. John could make you think of the company “John Deere”, or the actor “Johnny Depp”. Luke could be “Lucky Luke” or “Luke Skywalker”. Julie could be “Angelina Julie” or the month of July, which is spelled similarly to Julie. I’ll let you make your own associations for Mary. But as you can imagine, by making very simple associations, remembering becomes so much easier, it’s like magic. And once those associations are made, you can quickly form mnemonics to really anchor those names and images into your mind. You can imagine, say, Johnny Depp holding a lightsaber during a hot day in July, or whatever other crazy menmonic you might come up with.

Questions? Comments? Let me know how you are enjoying this series so far on “Ways to Drastically Improve Your Memory.” If you are enjoying any of these posts, please like, share, and subscribe!

This is Memory Tip #8 out of 12. To access additional tips in this series, click on any of the following links: Tip #1, Tip #2, Tip #3, Tip# 4, Tip #5, Tip #6, Tip #7, Tip #9, Tip #10, Tip #11, Tip #12

By Lingholic

  • www.lingholic.com is all about the art of learning languages. Learn how to learn and dramatically improve your foreign language acquisition ability.

  • Show Comments (7)

  • Jean Luc Picard passionately kissing Mary Magdalene…

    Yep never getting that one out of my head.

  • Olivier

    Hi and thanks a lot for your series. It’s great. I do have a problem. I am learning Japanese and somehow many words don’t stick. Since you learn Chinese, I am sure you can understand the problem. Here’s an example: “to emphasize” means 強調, which is pronounced kyôchô, both with long o’s. I learned all the writings of the most common 2200 character with menmonics. No problems there, that was easy. It’s the pronuncation that’s killing me. What can I use for kyô? What for chô? And what if 100 other characters are also pronounced kyô? If I use Kyô as in Kyôto und imagine that I emphasize something in Kyôto, then what to do with the other 100 completely other words that use kyô as well? Are they all in Kyôto? And, how do I know that 強 is kyô if I don’t remember that the word means “emphasize”? Also, kyô was easy because of Kyôto, but what about chô? or Chi? Ki? Gi? Ji? Chii? Jii? Kii?

    It’s driving me mad, and I don’t know if I make sense here and if you understand what I’m saying. But maybe you can help me, thank you!

    • sgendreau

      Hi Olivier. Thanks for your comment! I’m not totally sure I understand your problem. Are you telling me you have learned all 2200 characters with mnemonics but without the pronunciation? If you did learn the pronunciation but you are having problems remembering the subtleties of individual vowels, I would encourage you to think more about the “music” and the “flow” of the language. From what I can tell, you seem to have focused a lot on reading in your studies, and perhaps neglected listening and speaking. Listening is super important for remembering how words sound and to really get a feel for the flow of the language.

      When I learn new Chinese words, for example, I don’t really think about the tones that much. I focus on how the language sounds, and how each specific sentence sounds. If I tried to remember every single tone for every word I learned, I would never be able to progress in Chinese. Luca also has a great video talking about the way he learned Chinese.

      Also, for remembering the sounds of individual words, make mnemonics for those too, and use Anki flashcards to review your vocabulary. If you use the method of loci, you can also use special little mnemonics in your images to remind yourself of when a syllable is long. And you’ll need to review each word 4 to 5 times before it’ll start to stick, that’s normal. In the example you gave me (“to emphasize”), the two characters mean “strength” and “key”. If you already know these two individual characters, it shouldn’t be a problem making a simple mnemonic to remember the word “to emphasize”.

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