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What are Mnemonic Devices?

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 2 Jan 2013 | comments*Discuss
Mnemonic Devices Mnemonics Memory Aids

Mnemonic is a word derived from the Ancient Greek “mnemonikos” which is itself derived from Mnemosyne, the name of the Goddess of Memory. Mnemonic devices are essentially tricks used to enhance and aid memory. Most of us are probably familiar with and use a few mnemonic devices on a regular basis without even realising it. Generally, they rely on associations between easy-to-remember sequences of data, such as letters and numbers – this is because it is believed that the human mind finds it much easier to remember insignificant data if it is attached to meaningful information in a personal or spatial way.

Memory is often divided into two types: “natural” and “artificial”, with the latter being trained through learning. It is artificial memory that can be enhanced by mnemonic techniques. In fact, with the help of mnenomics, the brain can be trained to perform extraordinary feats of memory, which are impossible to carry out with natural memory alone.

Popular Mnemonic Devices

There are various tricks and strategies used to help people memorise information – here are some of the most popular:

Acronyms – these are words usually formed from the first letters of a group of words or parts of words and are very commonly used by companies and organisations in their names. Think of INTEL (“Integrated Electronics” and SUN (“Stanford University Network). Acronyms can be very useful for remembering lists – for example, the planets in order of their distance from the sun is Mecury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto; (Mnemonic Device) MVEMJSUNP = My Very Earnest Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles.

Rhymes – we all know how powerful rhymes can be at helping us remember things – just look at all the nursery rhymes of childhood and most pop song lyrics! The way they help brains retain information is called “acoustic encoding” and a good example is the common grammar rule: "i" before "e," except after "c”.

Chunking – this involves grouping items together, ideally into meaningful chunks. This is a very powerful technique – one San Francisco college student was able to remember 80 digits by grouping them into sets of 3-4 digits each and then memorising these values as significant ages, dates or other numbers in his life. This technique is also often used by master chess players who memorise specific strategies for particular patterns on the board; they then fit them together with other “chunks” of patterns and this helps to greatly reduce their playing time.

Imagery – this is a very powerful method, particularly for people who think in visual terms. It is often used to memorise pairs of words by creating an image for each word and then connecting the two images by mental visualisation. Using this method can significantly improve your memory, especially if you make the mental picture as vivid or startling as you can.

The Method of Loci – an Ancient Greek method used to help orators memorise speeches, this involves associating each item to be remembered (e.g.each word) with a specific location in a place you are familiar with, such as your house. For example, one item would be associated with the kitchen, one with the laundry, one with the living room, one with the master bedroom, one with the dining room, one with the hallway and so on. When you want to retrieve the information, you simply “walk” through your house and “pick up” each item along the way.

Remembering Names

One of the hardest tasks for many people is remembering the names of people they are introduced to, especially at an event like a part or work conference where they may be bombarded with several names one after each other. One good way to remember names is to associate the name – and the person – with a mental image or object and also with a particular feature or fact about the person. For example, you meet a man named Tom Bird who also happens to have a mole on his cheek – you then imagine a bird swooping down to peck at the “seed” on his cheek – and chances are you won’t forget his name again in a hurry! It is also a good idea to repeat the name out loud as this can often help to fix it in your memory.

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