Memory Tip #3: Use Mnemonics

A word derived from the name Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, a mnemonic is any device that helps us to memorize a piece or pieces of information, such as a verse or a formula.

Tony Buzan is a well-known English author and educational consultant. In “Moonwalking with Einstein,” where author Joshua Foer sets out to investigate the underpinnings of those with enhanced memory, soon finding himself at the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship (and proceeding to win it after having studied memory techniques for a year), Buzan reminds us of the importance of imagination in developing one’s memory. “In our gross misunderstanding of the function of memory,” he says, “we thought that memory was operated primarily by rote. In other words, you rammed it in until your head was stuffed with facts. What was not realized is that memory is primarily an imaginative process. In fact, learning, memory, and creativity are the same fundamental process directed with a different focus.”

Indeed, the art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new so it becomes a song, an acronym, a building, a dance, or a novel. To serve as an example, I created a simple mnemonic to help my students remember the meaning of the adjective “enormous”. I asked them if they already knew what the word “mousse” meant, and they all knew that it was a kind of dessert with whipped cream as a base. So I told them to imagine, as vividly as they could, a huge chocolate mousse standing right in front of them. I asked them to imagine the sweet taste, the texture, and the emotions that they would get by tasting the mousse. By associating a piece of information they already knew—in this case a cake, or a mousse—the students were able to remember that word perfectly. Almost a month later, without ever having reviewed the word, I asked them what the word “enormous” meant. All of them—without exception—automatically recalled that it meant very big because they still had that image of a giant mousse stuck in their memory.

What about your mnemonics then? How can you manage to create mnemonics on the fly that you’ll easily remember for weeks—if not years—to come? Well, the best advice I can give you is to make your images really stand out. In 1933, German psychologist Hedwig von Restorff conducted a series of experiments to try to identify what makes something memorable. She concluded that one of the strongest criteria for recall is individuality. If something stands out for being a different shape, size, colour or in some other way significantly, characteristically different from the other items around it, it becomes easier to recall. For example, in a field of red poppies, a single sunflower becomes memorable. So it’s best to think of and picture vividly things that really stand out, things either crazy, funny, absurd, explicit, and so forth. The more absurd, crazy, or explicit the images you create, the more likely you’ll be able to remember them. Nobody can peek inside your mind, so use your imagination to make images that you know you won’t forget.

“So, how long is this whole process supposed to take me?” you might ask. Well, creating mnemonics is an art that you can develop and finely hone by making use of your imagination, and depending on how easily you can use your imaginative capabilities, the speed at which you’ll be able to create memorable images and memories will vary. However, remember that this skill is something that gets developed; the more you do it, the better and quicker you’ll become. You should by no means overlook this powerful memory aide. Indeed, mnemonics, combined with the memory palace method (see Tip #5), might be one of the strongest memory technique available to the human arsenal, and mastering this technique will drastically improve your memorization capabilities beyond what you could’ve ever imagined.


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

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