How Do Mneumonic Devices Work

Mnemonics are powerful memory aids based on pretty simple and straightforward techniques. Rhyme, rhyme, patterns and visual cues all help the brain create and store information. Any of these create pathways to memory. Mnemonic techniques can be adapted to many situations.

Advertisers know the power of silly rhymes and associations; hence the annoying commercial jingle that gets stuck in your head for days. Ancient poets knew that rhyme and rhythm made memorization simpler, too. And since orally transmitted information was the only way to keep a culture's history alive, it was essential that tellers could memorize vast amounts of information.

What is a mnemonic device?

It is simply a tool for helping the brain store information. It engages the senses, including the sense of touch, such as using the knuckles to recall the number of days in each month, with the high point being months with 31 days.

Where does the word mnemonics come from?

The word goes back to the ancient Greek word for memory, which may have derived from Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory.

Are there different types of mnemonics?

There are a number of mnemonic techniques. One popular method is the use of rhyme, such as "in 14 hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." These stick in the mind after just a few repetitions.

Another technique uses the first letter of each word in a list to make an absurd sentence also works, even though the sentence itself has little real meaning. For instance, say you are trying to memorize the names of the first five presidents of the United States: Washington Adams Jefferson Madison and Monroe. Your silly sentence could be Will Apple Jelly Make Monday's lunch?

Or use the first letter of each word to form another familiar word, such as HOMES when recalling the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.

Loci is an ancient technique but easily adapted for modern use. It helped orators deliver speeches by linking their main points to a familiar location. Begin by visualizing a place you know well, such as your own home. Start at a specific point such as your back door. Then mentally chart a path through your home. Each "room" will become part of the association. If you have a list of things to remember, associate each item with a point along your walk. It is often referred to as the "journey method."

It is easier to understand the loci method through an example. Say you are trying to memorize the following words in a specific order: dog, cat, cow, chicken, fox. As you approach your back door you "see" your dog wagging his tail in welcome. You open the door and the squeaky hinge sounds like a cat meowing. You walk down the hall to the kitchen where you get a glass of milk and think of the cow. You then decide to make a sandwich and think of the chicken. Finally you walk into the den and think of the fox since foxes live in dens.

Linking is another technique for learning things in order. Using the five animals above, create a little cartoon in your head: your dog and cat sneak up on a cow. A chicken squawks just as a fox appears.

Make your own and don't be afraid to be silly.

An unusual or artificial connection may actually stick in the brain better than a seemingly more reasonable or logical connection. It's as if the sheer novelty of the connection activates a part of the brain responsible for memory.

However you use mnemonics, they will be most effective if you repeat your construction several times and keep your mnemonics simple! The technique doesn't work well if it is overly complicated-in fact, it becomes just another thing to try to remember.

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