Naïve mnemonics are things people do naturally when they want to remember something. They take no training. We do them automatically.
For nearly 3000 years, people have known that rehearsal helps memory. To keep things in short-term memory, we repeat the words or numbers over and over.
Rehearsal is easy to see in little kids. Put your phone in another room and ask them to go dial a particular number. On their way to the phone they will repeat the number over and over. This is the same process students use to memorize lists or facts, and actors use it to remember lines.
We use rehearsal because it works. It works because we can choose to leave it in short-term memory and forget it after we are done with it. Or we can practice it longer so the hippocampus has enough time to consolidate the memory into long-term memory.
This clustering technique takes advantage of spatial cues. Instead of seeing a single sting on numbers, we divide the material up into smaller units. A chunk is typically 3-4 items. The long number 949206714313307 is broken up into 949 206 714 313 307. These chunks will be more memorable if you are familiar with any of these area codes. Similarly, if you know the phone number for the switchboard at White House, you will recognize 202 456 1414.
When you are learning your lines for a play, break it up into segments, learn some each day. When you are learning a list of vocabulary words, chunk the list into smaller parts. Break everything down into manageable bits.
Most people learn songs and serial information by forward chaining. You start at the front and go until you can’t remember, then gradually add on the back end of the chain. You remember the first part but are less confident as you go. This is a popular method but not as effective as its brother: backward chaining.
Backward chaining starts at the back and adds material to the front end of the chain. You are always working toward success. It is as easy as forward chaining but more effective.
When you have a series of tricks you want your dog to do, start with the last one. Then add one to the front of the chain. Then add another to the front of the chain. Once started, the items on the chain get easier and easier.
When you have a list that has to be remembered in order, start at the back and add links to the front. Backward chaining is extremely helpful. If I could teach you only one mnemonic, it would be chunking. If I could teach you two, they would be backward chaining and chunking. See, I backward chained them for you.
Images can be infographics, mind maps, clusters, cartoons or paintings. Many churches have paintings and stained-glass windows which are used to remind people of Biblical stories or statements of theology.
Somewhere on a map you’ll find a compass. The image will be labeled with N, S, E and W (north, south, east and west). This is an image mnemonic. It helps you remember the relationship between directions, and the combinations of them (SSW, NNE, etc.).
I use a visualization of my grocery store to remind me of what to buy. I push the cart on the same route every four or five days, so I’m familiar with the store. I start with the cheese-yogurt-egg isle, swing by the milk shelf and ignore the bakery, unless I need peanut butter, which, for some unfavorable reason, is next to the donuts. I move to the pharmacy-aspirin-toothpaste aisle, round the corner and go past the cookies and chips… Visualizing before I go helps me remember or, at least, to make a list of what I need.
Images alone can be helpful. But images work best when they are interactive. Think of two objects and visualize them interacting. A tree and a truck can be a tree in a truck or a truck hanging from a tree.
They don’t have to be bizarre or vivid; they have to be interactive. The reason some say to pick bizarre or unusual images is that they tend to be interactive. But it is the interaction that matters.
Well into the 14th century, most information was recited in rhymes and poems. Rules of commerce, ethics, social behavior were taught and learned in rhyme. Modern versions of this technique include “I before E, except after C” and “30 days hath September, April, June…” The poems don’t have to rhyme; any ode will do. But when you generate your own, you’ll find that rhyming comes easily.
You can use songs other people have created. You probably remember Ray Charles singing the “Fifty Nifty United States,” Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m just a bill,” and Hannah Montana’s Bone Dance. Of course there is the very popular “ABCDEFG” song. But you can also make up your own. The child rehearing the phone number will often sing it, making up the tune as they go. The music doesn’t have to be good, just memorable.
These short versions of folk wisdom include “Red in the morning, sailors take warning…” and “Spring forward, fall back.” Spelling knowledge can always be delivered this way: desert vs dessert; more is better, so I’ll eat dessert in the desert.
Affirmations and slogans are also part of the modern proverb group. And you can add to by making your own. I call mine “Tangenianisms.” For example: “People have a tremendous capacity to change, and we usually don’t.”
We often abbreviate or rename familiar places. In Seattle, the Aurora Bridge and Boeing Hill have official names most locals don’t use. Similarly, S. California likes to nickname portions of the same freeway which visitors find confusing. You probably know people who have nicknames such as Ace, Grace, Babs and The Count. They are quick mnemonic devices that represent people you know.
In addition to these nicknames, people love to abbreviate. The University of ______ (pick a name) is often called by the city it is in, referred to as State or simply the U. The yard, the quad and the student union are used far more often than their official names. Fox News Network becomes Fox, and the local theater is the Rep.
This is a reduction mnemonic. Instead of saying a whole phrase, we use only the first letter of each word. It is common for companies to have their own unique acronyms. It might be RDO (regular day off), KPI (key productivity indicator) or SLO (student learning outcome). Radio detection and ranging becomes RADAR, and mobile army surgical hospital becomes MASH.
Acronyms allow lists of words to be summarized in a single word. The Great Lakes are condensed from Humor, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior become HOMES. American Broadcasting Company becomes ABC, and Cable News Network becomes CNN.
There is an advantage of combining images and acronyms. You not only get the acronym to remind you of the words but you also get to see the interactions. In the case of HOMES, the boxes with the names in them indicated the location and relative size of the lakes. Superior is the farthest north, Michigan is the greatest of the Great Lakes, and Erie is eerily small.
This is an elaboration mnemonic. You add more information but it makes the whole easier to remember. Acrostics are poems or sentences where the first letter of each word stands for something. “Every good boy does fine” is an acrostic for the names of the treble clef lines (EGBDF). “On old Olympus towering top, a Finn and German viewed some hops” is an acrostic for OOOTTAFAGVSA. Each letter stands for a cranial nerve (olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory, glossopharyngeal, vagus, spinal accessory and hypoglossal).
When I was in college, I created some acrostics for a class I was taking and remembered the acrostics perfectly for the test. I couldn’t remember a single thing they stood for but I remembered the acrostics. It was a disaster.
Acrostics work great for remembering the order of items but they don’t work as well at remembering the underlying information. It is easy to remember the acrostic (on old Olympus…) and forget olfactory, optic and oculomotor. Chunking and visualizing work best for the underlying items.
No matter how little you know, you already have learned some information. Learning is the process of adding to your current knowledge base. As with the area codes, use the knowledge you already have to learn new things. We fit the new stuff in-between existing structures to make a cohesive whole.
When in doubt, make connections with yourself or your interests. A list of numbers is easier to remember if you are familiar with running times, swimming times, planes (737, 747, 757, B1) or sales prices. You can use what you already know to identify patterns that no one else would notice.
If nothing else, use your body. You can remember which months have 31 months by counting on your knuckles. Ignoring thumbs, count from one side to the other: knuckle (January), between space (Feb), knuckle (March), etc. It won’t help you remember the names of the months but it is handy (sorry).
All ten of these mnemonic techniques are common. You probably use many of them without thinking about it. Now you can use them more thoughtfully and purposefully. Rehearsal, chunking and images are the big three. If you use them to their fullest, you might not need the other seven techniques.
But people are different. Try a few and see which ones work best for you.