Mnemonic Devices, Memory, Remembering and Learning

On January 1, 2009 CNN published an article on memory. It's been a while since then, and so now would be a good time to review and expand on that article, in the hopes of improving our own memory.

The Persistence of Memory

It may be useful to conceive of the Art of Memory as having four broad application areas, a set of techniques (often called mnemonic devices), and the underlying cognitive architecture which indicate how and why such techniques work in the first place. Ultimately mnemonic devices promise a significant return on cognitive and temporal investment -- spend time learning these techniques and save a lot more time and effort over the application area.

Background on Mnemonics

According to Aristotle, the art of memory was considered a part of rhetoric as much as dialectic in classical antiquity. Apparently, many mnemonic devices such as the Method of Loci and the Major System were taught in schools until at least the 19th century. It appears we have forgotten these memory systems. Now may be a good time to recall them to mind.

Underlying Cognitive Architecture

The underlying cognitive mechanism which are the basis for much of the mnemonic devices include the following elements, among others.

  • The Von Restorff Effect seems to be the basis for many other phenomena. The main point is that things that stand out are more likely to be remembered. This has many implications

  • The serial order effect includes two features: primacy (things first in a list are more likely to be remembered) and recency (things last in a series are more likely to be remembered).

  • The Picture Superiority Effect indicates that according to dual-coding theory, memories can exist as verbal and/or visual, and therefore pictorially represented ideas have the advantage of being coded twice, enhancing memorability. Use pictures and words when possible.

  • The Levels of Processing Effect is a complex phenomena. It proposes that depth of processing increases memorability. Semantic learning (meaning) is deeper than phonemic (sound) and orthographic (writing) learning alone.

  • In addition, specificity (the same medium of recall and production, such as auditory learning and recollection) increases depth. Self-reference indicates a connection between the object of learning and the subject doing the learning. Self-reference increases depth as well. Make learning specific in terms of medium, meaning (semantics), and learner self-reference (meaningfulness to the subject). This could be termed the three Ms of Memory: medium, meaning, and meaningfulness.

  • Implicit recollection is easier than explicit recollection. Implicit recollection effectively has context and other scaffolding features rather than requiring recollection without any related stimulus. However this effect does not have clear-cut support.

  • There is a hierarchy of sensory inputs for recall. Vision and touch are strongest with sound and smell less powerful sensory inputs. Incorporate vision and touch into sound-based memory inputs and outputs when possible.

Mnemonic Devices and Techniques

  • The Mnemonic Link System can be considered the basis of the Loci, Major, and Dominic systems. The main idea is to create connections between two unrelated things, thereby forging a memorable connection.

  • Peg systems are a memorization of visual associations with numbers, such that the numbers can be recalled by recalling the visual associations in a given order.

  • The Major System is a handy and flexible way of encoding numbers in sounds that can be memorized in words, and then decoded later to reproduce the original number. Created around 300 years ago, this is the most flexible system, though as it relies on sound it has a greater cognitive load rather than a straightforward peg system. However, it can be supplemented with software to help generate the most appropriate words to link to the target numbers. See also this article and this free software that can help with numbers-to-words association to help with major system.

  • The Dominic system is a shorter version of the Major system and associates numbers with letters, and pairs of letters with people. Then the idea is to memorize a set of people performing interactions, which can then be reversed back into the original number. (See also this phonetic mnemonic system.)

  • The Method of Loci is ascribed to the classical orator Simonides, who was speaking at a banquet, was called outside, when the roof collapsed. The bodies were so damaged they could not be identified, but he was able to identify the victims of the disaster based on where the people had been sitting. Loci (locations) are a well-known visual space which can be recalled readily to mind. The idea is then to picture objects in these places. The strengths of visual imagery and self-reference are combined to construct a powerful mnemonic.

Additional Practical Aspects

  • In the book Aspects of Memory: The Practical Aspects, there is an interesting article "Memory Aids, known how, knowing when, and knowing when not" introduces and discusses various memory aids (mnemonic devices) and their effectiveness compared with rote learning.

  • Another article in the same book, "The Facilitation of Memory Performance", discusses various memory and non-memory issues. Memory issues include using warm up, presentation rate, effective instructions, repetition, distributed study trials, use of external memory aids, and physical presence of objects.

  • Non-memory issues include physical, emotional, motivational, environmental, and social conditions. All of these non-memory issues are meant to increase both arousal and selective attention. Physically we are faced with the obvious importance of enough, but not too much, sleep, food, and water. Environmental issues include bathroom facilities, heat and cold, seating or standing, lighting, auditory and visual elements, and other comfort issues. Emotional state regards stress and relaxation training including yoga, meditation, and exercise. Motivation is a complex component best dealt elsewhere. Social environment has to do with interaction with others to reduce shyness and provide positive feedback and support.

Mnemonic Application Areas

  • Remembering Faces and Names are particularly important for rather obvious reasons. There are a few related systems, which usually rely on unique visual combinations, related to names, as well as previous memories and experiences, using the notion of self-reference.

  • A reviewer of "Remember Every Name Every Time" appears to provide most of the content of a given book, namely the two methods for remembering, the observational and associational systems.

  • There are several resources available as technique variations. The useful Nutt's How to Remember Names and Faces is now in the public domain. There is a video on how to remember names. A blog entry on ThinkSimpleNow has seven hacks to remember any name. And an additional site has more hints for name memory.

  • The Major and Dominic systems are designed for numbers, as well as reversing any peg system.

  • The linkword system is perfect for learning foreign language vocabulary. There has been useful research (constrained to case study) which indicates significant difference in using the linkword system. It is important that the linkwords, usually a visual combination based in L1 (first language) be focused on for a specific amount of time. Some studies indicate a 10 second time interval is useful and there is anecdotal evidence for great gains. Unfortunately, if native-speaker-level pronunciation is desired (which it usually is) then the linkwords must be created by bilingual teams who can work out the correct pronunciation. As we know languages have different sound sets, so even there a trained native speaker must conduct the listening and production aspects. For more thoughts on this topic, see this and this.

  • Textbook and Course Content is an obvious application area, though there is a sense that cramming is good enough for the majority of students, who don't want to commit to memory much of their higher educational experience. There is a useful resource on mnemonics for textbook memorization.

  • Another site provides some techniques for Listening in the article "How to listen for memory".

Final Note

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I didn't have much time, so I wrote a long article. A shorter one will be forthcoming once I boil this down into a few simple techniques and guidelines.

Postscript - Power Law and Foreign Language Learning

The original formulation of Zipf's law was based on naturally occurring word frequencies and their rank order in a given English language corpus. For one example, merely 135 words accounted for 50% of the total word frequencies. This could be extended to phrases as well. For foreign language learners, this means that there is some limited set of words and phrases which account for a large percentage of word and phrase occurrences.

If we leverage the mnemonic tools, we can spend time to create a set of entry level learning tools which will be extremely relevant (and therefore worth the time in creating).

Suggested tools

For given words and phrases identified

  • Phonemic imagery
  • Iconic images (simple drawings)
  • Canonical script, including for alphabet
  • "Town language" Roman room mnemonic, extended as a metaphor via the Pattern Language of Christopher Alexander (at the level of vocabulary, and eventually as grammar)
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