Mnemonics can dramatically increase the ability to recall lists of words or a series of objects. Naïve mnemonics come quite naturally to us and are easy to use. Technical mnemonics take more up-front investment but can be used to memorize a wide range of information, including faces and names, lists and the order of a shuffled deck of cards.
The disadvantages of using mnemonics, particularly technical mnemonics, include:
- it takes a lot of effort to use them (more than most people will devote)
- they can’t be readily applied to learning complex material (poems or stories)
- they don’t help people remember physical sequences (dance movements, etc.)
- they have limited usefulness for everyday tasks
- people don’t use them; even if trained to use them
As it turns out, memory researchers are no more likely to use mnemonics than anyone else. Even though they research how the brain works and understand the underlying processes of mnemonics, researchers, like most people, use external aids. Since you are rarely called on to memorize lists of unrelated words in their correct order, do what the experts do: write things down.
External aids include lists and calendars. They are easy ways to keep track of your To Do and When To Meet items. Paper and electronic versions are both widely used.
Memos or notes to self can be written on anything but Post-it Notes are popular. So are 3×5 index cards. One idea per card is usually the best choice. A more low-tech version is writing on your palm or the back of your hand. Some people use this technique as their primary system.
Photographs are wonderful memory aids. Our brains don’t store every little bit of information. We save the recipe, not a hologram of the actual event. When you walk across a park, you don’t encode flower, flower, flower, grass, grass, grass. You go “pretty” and throw the rest away. We are meaning extractors.
Alarms, timers and clocks help us get up, brew our tea and get to work on time. Sometimes we use objects as reminders. You might put your briefcase at the front door so you won’t miss it. By making it impossible to ignore, it is easy to remember.
Models can be sequential, shaped like a pyramid or be displayed as a pie chart. Sketches and physical models help describe interrelationships more clearly. Models can also be improvised. Making fists with your hands and crossing your arms is a quick model of the brain. Each cerebral hemisphere looks like a fist; the thumb is the temporal lobe, the back is the occipital lobe, the knuckles are the parietal lobes and the rest is the frontal lobes. Crossing your arms reminds you that the left hemisphere runs the right side, and the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body.
The classic string on the finger is another external memory device. It doesn’t have to be a string. It can be a knot in a scarf or handkerchief. Anything out of the ordinary can be used as a memory cue.
A common way to remember is to ask someone to remind you. Nothing is quite the same as crowd-sourcing your memory.
When studying for a test, note and flash cards both summarize the material and let you test your competence. Other study aids include mind maps, clusters and doodling.
Outlines are external aids that also help organize the information. You can use the classic outline, indenting for each subsequent level, or the Cornell System. With the Cornell note taking system, you draw a vertical about 3 inches from the left margin, dividing the page into two parts. The left side is for main ideas or questions. The right side is for details and answers.