The art of memory: mnemonic techniques

Nowadays, when we want to remember something, we mostly use our phone to take a quick note, create a reminder, message ourselves on Slack, or just add it to our calendar. Granted, having a good memory may not be as useful as it used to be, but there’s lots of research showing that training your memory is good for your brain and, ultimately, for your longevity. Good old mnemonics are techniques you can use to better memorise and remember stuff.

The word “mnemonic” comes from Mnemosyne (“remembrance”), the name of the goddess of memory in Greek mythology. Mnemonics were already used in antiquity to practice what ancient Greeks and Romans called the Art of Memory, which Aristotle and Cicero wrote extensively about. It was obviously essential for orators to remember what they had to say when addressing a crowd.

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The principles of mnemonics

The Art of Memory is so ancient that there are many mnemonics you can use to remember things better, but all roughly follow the same set of five principles.

  1. The visual principle: the concept of attaching sounds to visual images. “To help recall something we have heard rather than seen, we should attach to their words the appearance, facial expressions, and gestures of the person speaking as well as the appearance of the room,” writes Professor Mary Carruthers, an expert in medieval literature, rhetoric, memory and mnemonic techniques.
  2. The order principle: the concept of ordering the items you want to remember in an order that makes them easier to recall. This order must be rigid, designed in a way where you would notice if an item was missing or out of place.
  3. The limited set principle: the concept of breaking up of a long series into more manageable sets. This concept is known as chunking in modern cognitive psychology.
  4. The association principle: the concept of creating a starting point to initiate a chain of recollection. In his essay De Memoria et Reminiscentia, Aristotle writes: “The reason for this is that men pass rapidly from one step to the next; for instance from milk to white, from white to air, from air to damp; after which one recollects autumn, supposing that one is trying to recollect the season.”
  5. The affect principle: the concept of using emotionally striking imagery to ensure that the images will be better retained in memory. You could associate something you want to remember with the weirdest thing you can think off. This has been confirmed in modern psychology by what’s called the Von Restorff effect, which shows that bizarre, shocking, or simply unusual information is more easily remembered.
Mnemonics

Mnemonics techniques

Mnemonics are most often used to remember lists of items, often in auditory or textual form, for example using acronyms, memorable sentences, or even short poems. But they can also work using your sight or body movements. It’s pretty usual for mnemonics to transform pretty dry and abstract information into something more fun and relatable which the human mind remembers more easily. Here are some of the most popular categories of mnemonic techniques:

  • Architectural mnemonics: these consist in creating a building in your head—a house, a castle, whatever tickles your fancy—and “placing” things you want to remember in specific spots in that building. These techniques are sometimes called the Method of Loci. For example, let’s say you want to remember someone’s phone number. You repeat it to yourself several times, then you securely put it in the drawer of the bedside table in your “mind bedroom.” When you want to retrieve this particular memory, you simply open the imaginary drawer and read the number.
  • Auditory mnemonics: these mnemonics use melodies—for example from songs from your childhood or even popular jingles—to remember stuff. You then memorise the new lyrics. But beware: it can work so well that you’ll struggle to remember the original lyrics.
  • Graphical mnemonics: these mnemonics consist in creating tables, charts and symbols inside your mind to better retrieve information. For example, imagine opening Photoshop inside your mind and drawing a star with five points corresponding to five items you want to remember. The symbols can be pretty abstract or concrete, it’s just about creating your owns.
  • Physical mnemonics: the most famous physical mnemonic is probably the one where you use your knuckles to remember the number of days in each month of the Gregorian calendar, with each knuckle representing a 31-day month. Touching parts of your body for each item in a list or tracing their shape with your fingers in the air are also physical mnemonics.
  • Textual mnemonics: these mnemonic techniques are often used in school, for example for the order of operations with PEMDAS (“Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”) standing for parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction. You could also use short poems and alliterations, such as “Memorial Day is in May; Labor Day happens later in the year.” There is even a mnemonic technique for spelling mnemonic—”Memory Needs Every Method Of Nurturing Its Capacity”.
  • Visual mnemonics: these work by associating an image with the items that have to be memorised. For example, small kids are sometimes taught how to remember digits based on their shapes. 0 looks like an egg, 1 like a pencil, 2 like a swan, 3 like an ear, 4 like a sail, etc. Another example is to remember that a Dromedary’s back is shaped like the letter D.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of mnemonics is to get creative when designing your own. Sure, we have our phones and plenty of apps to remember stuff, but training your brain and exercising our memory can actually be fun.


Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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