Better Memory Through Mnemonics

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Thursday 14th October 2010
In this article
  • Too much to remember.
  • What are mnemonics?
  • Mnemonics made easy.

You’re out for dinner and you spot an important client. It would be great to say hello and introduce him to your dinner companion. There’s only one problem and it’s right on the tip of your tongue... you can’t remember your client’s name. This embarrassing situation happens to all of us from time to time. Read on for some SharpMan tips and tricks to help you remember important names, numbers, people and places.

Memory Overload

  • You’re on your buddy’s boat when he asks you to pull up the anchor off the port side. Port? Is that the right side… or the left? You used to know the answer, but now…
  • Your favorite 10-year-old nephew challenges you to name all the planets… in order? Um, you knew this at age ten, right?
  • It was only yesterday when you met the new neighbors. Today you’re struggling to remember… was it Bob and Bonnie, or Beau and Beatrice?
  • The bank sent you a new pin number for your checking account. Yes, another number to memorize…

The boss gives you his private cell phone number with instructions to call when the budget numbers are in. But where did you put it? Why didn’t you commit it to memory?

Numbers, names, planets. Only the beginning of your information overload. How can you be expected to remember anything… let alone everything?

It might not be as hard as you think. Back in grade school you probably learned the phrase: I before E except after C as a spelling aid. Or, maybe the phrase "My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Porcupines," to remember the names of the nine planets.

In other words, the first letter of each word of the phrase represents the first letter of the planet name. So "My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Porcupines" represents Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.

This technique is called: mnemonics.

What Are Mnemonics?

Mnemonics are memory aids, or little tricks, you can learn and use to retain information. Mnemonics boost memory by creating catch words or phrases, making it easy to recall lists, key words or sequences.

The word mnemonics comes from the Greek mneme ("memory") and mnemon ("mindful") and, the Greek Goddess of Memory and mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne.

Before printing presses and books, oral histories (and great memories) were passed on from one person to the next. This was the only method available for retaining histories and genealogies.

In ancient Rome, lawyers made up rhymes and stories to remember the points they wanted to make when arguing a case. Storytellers and poets memorized volumes and retold them to rapt audiences. They were developing the Mnemonic System without even knowing it.

How Mnemonics Work

Mnemonic techniques allow the brain to classify, organize, store and recall information into and out of long-term memory. The mnemonic tells us where to look in our long-term memory. It doesn’t hurt that our minds tend to easily remember unusual, funny and personal ideas.

Common Types of Mnemonic Devices

Acronyms — The most common everyday use of mnemonics. The first letter from each word is taken to spell out a simple word or phrase, like using "U.C.L.A." for the University of California at Los Angeles.

Acrostic — An invented sentence where the first letter of each word is a cue to an idea you’d like to remember. For example, to remember the names of the Great Lakes, the word "HOMES" will help you visualize summer homes on the edge of a lake (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior).

Method of Loci — This technique places the items you want to remember in a visualized room or route that is familiar. The items get "picked up" as you mentally tour the room or route. This method is especially useful for speeches or when the order of the items is crucial.

Rhymes & Phrases — This technique uses rhymes or poems to refresh your memory. For example, who can forget the Alphabet Song? To remember port from starboard, this little phrase will help: "P (port) comes before S (starboard). L (left) comes before R (right). So, port will always be left and starboard will always be right."

This common rhyme jogs our memory regarding the number of days in each month of the year:

Thirty days hath September…

April, June and November;

All the rest have thirty-one

Excepting February alone…

Which hath but twenty-eight, in fine,

Till leap year gives it twenty-nine.

Visual Association — This final mnemonics technique links two ideas using images, allowing you to remember sequences of unrelated items in the appropriate order.

Using Mnemonics

As you can imagine, memory techniques began losing prominence in the early 1450s, when Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. But for information other than that printed in books, mnemonics can still be quite useful today. What with driver’s license numbers, social security numbers, pin codes, passwords, birthdays, anniversaries and so on… mnemonics may just be the ultimate secret weapon against drawing a blank.

Here are some ways to incorporate mnemonics into your everyday life:

Remembering Names

When you’re trying to remember someone’s name, the first step is to come up with a mental image of that person and perhaps a fact or two about him or her.

A good example is the name Bill Shepherd. To turn this name into an image, think about a telephone bill being waved by a shepherd. Or for the name Ben Springer, think about a man bending down to take a drink from a spring.

Remembering Numbers

The easiest way to remember numbers — especially telephone numbers — is to associate a numeral with a letter. And where better to find a number/letter combo than your phone. More than likely, the number you want to remember won’t easily spell a word. So just use the acrostic mnemonic method to remember the number. For example, if you’d like to memorize the phone number 555-4983, try this: Joy Joy Joy, George Waltzes Very Fine.

For numbers, like your banking pin number, try to use a variation of the mnemonic acrostic technique, utilizing the number in a phrase. For example, if you’d like to remember the number 2641, try something like this:

2 is for my two dogs, Sherlock and Watson.

6 is for the six times I saw Star Wars: Episode I.

4 is for four wheels on the quad I take to the dunes.

1 is for my one and only girlfriend, Samantha.

This article last updated on Monday 4th July 2011
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