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Using Mnemonics

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A mnemonic is a memory aid. Mnemonic aids rely on both repetition and association. The associations are between easy-to-remember constructs and lists of data. These aids are based on the principle that the human mind remembers insignificant data when it is attached to spatial, personal, or otherwise meaningful information more than when it occurs in meaningless sequences.

The word mnemonic is derived from the ancient Greek word mnemonikos (“of memory”) It is related to Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory in Greek mythology. The first known reference to mnemonics is the method of loci described in Cicero’s De Oratore.

It is assumed that there are two types of memory: the natural memory and the artificial memory. Natural memory is inborn. It is the memory that is used for everyday living. Artificial memory is memory that is trained through learning and the practice of a variety of mnemonic techniques. Some of these techniques include:

  • First letter mnemonics

One common mnemonic for remembering lists consists of an easily remembered word, phrase, or rhyme whose first letters are associated with the list items. Using Roy G. Biv to remember the colors of the rainbow is an example of this.

  • Mnemonic link system

This is a method of remembering lists by creating an association between the elements of that list. If you wanted to remember the words dog, envelope, thirteen, yarn, and window you would link them together by telling a story about a dog stuck in an envelope, mailed to an unlucky black cat playing with yarn by the window. It is believed that the story may be easier to remember than the list itself. Another method is to link items with an image. To expand on the example above, you would imagine a dog inside of a giant envelope, and then one would “see” an unlucky black cat or something else that reminds you of the number thirteen eating a huge envelope. You would continue to add images until your list is complete. Using absurd images as a mnemonic device is known as the Von Restorff effect.

  • Loci system

This method was taught for centuries as a part of the curriculum in schools. The first step is to memorize a series of familiar locations in a particular order. You may choose to do a virtual walkthrough of your house. You then take each item you are trying to memorize and associate it with a location using a vivid mental image. Mentally walk through the location several times in the same order. After a few repetitions, you should be able to remember and visualize each of the places. This is a helpful technique to recall information that needs to be remembered in a particular order.

  • Goroawase

Goroawase is a Japanese linguistic technique where homophonous (homonyms that share the same pronunciation) words are associated with a given series of letters, numbers or symbols. This method is often used to remember dates, scientific constants, and phone numbers.

  • Herigone’s system

Pierre Herigone was a French mathematician and astronomer and devised a system for substituting numbers for letters which can be combined to form words and associated together in a sentence or a narrative. This system is based on phonemes (sounds which have similar sounds and which are used to form words).

  • Rhyming

A rhyme is a saying that has similar terminal sounds at the end of each line. Rhymes are easier to remember because they can be stored using acoustic encoding. An example of using a rhyme as a mnemonic device is 30 Days has September, April, June, and November. All the rest have 31, except February.

  • Chunking

Chunking involves learning something in chunks. The human brain is capable of remembering only a limited number of arbitrary items. Grouping these items into chunks permits the brain to hold more of them in memory.

While helpful, mnemonics are adjuncts to learning. They have their place and they can be extremely effective. You must remember though, that their purpose is very limited. You have to be able to plug in the actual information. You cannot develop expertise in a subject without knowing the core facts. Mnemonics can be a great help in the early stages of developing your knowledge. They facilitate learning in the beginning. If the information you want to memorize has any meaning, you need to combine the use of mnemonic strategies with the use of strategies appropriate for meaningful learning. Never forget that the main purpose of mnemonic devices is to help with arbitrary information, facts that have no meaningful connection with each other.


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