Memory and Mnemonics: how to improve an essential skill

My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. Hands up if you know what I’m talking about. We call this a mnemonic, and this particular one tells us the order of the planets, working away from the sun. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.

A Mnemonic is a learning (or memorising) technique that helps us retain information. Anything from a rhyme to an anagram, from music to images, can act as a powerful mnemonic.

Always remember that lose has lost an o, and ponder, ‘Will A Jolly Man Make A Jolly Visitor,’ should you wish to remember the first eight US presidents: (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson and Van Buren).

By giving a meaning to something ordinary, a mnemonic helps it become more memorable and therefore easier to recall. Listed below are the main techniques:

  • Spelling: There are many such as: ‘there is a rat in separate’. These are very clever ways to help with spelling.
  • Feature Mnemonics: If you are to meet a group of new people and want to remember their names, practise this. You must identify a feature and remember the person by associating it with their name. For example, should Tina have blue eyes, remember: Tina + blue eyes and turn that into blue-eyed Tina.
  • Alliteration: Use this to remember a name (of a person or otherwise), once you have identified a trait. An example would be tall Tim or sincere Sophie.
  • Song mnemonics: You might remember these from when you were younger, learning times tables or the alphabet. You could always make one up (or source one) for complex lists such as the periodic table.
  • Organization mnemonics: This is how we remember numbers usually, by breaking them up into small groups – for instance: 3148, 7219, 6365. You could do this with any list – even words can be divided into sub-groups.
  • Visual mnemonics: You can create a visual short story in your head linking the items, in order to remember a list e.g., the dog put his glasses on to read the magazine and made notes using a red pen (will help you remember the three highlighted items).

Three-time World Memory champion, Ben Pridmore, managed to memorize 819 digits in 15 minutes. Even though memory is strongly associated with intelligence, competitors, like Pridmore, say that it’s not an innate gift of remembering vast lists that gets them far, but rather ‘they attribute their success to the dedicated rehearsal of a few mnemonic techniques’, and they say that ‘practitioners of the art of memory have used mnemonics to improve, recall and organize information efficiently since the time of the ancient Greeks.’

‘Everyone is born with a good memory,’ Pridmore suggests, ‘then most people are trained how to use it badly. Not a fixed trait, memory can always be improved and since so much of what is achieved at school and beyond, is dependent on recall, it is worth spending time on learning some of these techniques, to make an already good memory even better.

Recommended Links:

The Harvard Brain - Mnemonics, Not Magiccfvccvf

How to Use Mnemonic Techniques for Memory Improvement |

WMSC Home - The World Memory Championships

Ben Pridmore - 3 Time World Memory Champion (