6. 2. 2019

Mnemonics: How to Multiply Your Cognitive Effort and Remember The Things You Can Google Anyway

What are They and Why Should You Care?

Mnemonics are memory techniques with roots in ancient Greek. They are called after the goddess of Memory Mnemosyne. Scholars and philosophers used these memory techniques for centuries. They had to rely on their memory as looking up the information whenever you need it was very impractical. They adopted an unbelievable amount of knowledge this way. With their techniques, you can replicate, at least partly, their achievements.
But do we need them? There are many technologies which may help us to store recall information. That is true. But ask yourself a question: Would you read a book if you knew that you would not remember anything of it a month after? I guess you wouldn’t. But ask yourself: how much do you remember from any book you read more than two months ago? Often almost nothing. There are still many things we want to remember. Not to say the memory is the core part of learning which is, in our global economy, more important than ever. Mnemonics are like a pulley and multiplies your invested effort. So, you don´t have to care but if you would you may gain an unimaginable advantage to others.
Note: Ability to remember a card deck in 10 minutes is, of course, also invaluable. Especially, when drinking and need impress the stuff!

The Core of Mnemonics

We can memorize best a certain type of information. Our brains evolved through millions of years. They had to serve us well in an unpredictable environment to survive. So, what was the information we needed to remember the most? Hint: It wasn´t neither words nor numbers. We needed to remember the way back to cave; the look of plants we can eat; the difference between male and female bear. So, we need the most to remember the visual and other sensory information.
There is no need for doing so nowadays, but our brains are still the same, from which we can take advantage of.  Most mnemonics use elaborative coding. That means converting various type of information into a visual one. For example, you need to learn what the harp sponge is. So, you imagine a harp which has a sponge on it´s every string and the frustrated and naked Captain Nemo who tries to play on it at the bottom of the ocean. The more bizarre and insane the pictures are the better. As puts it Brown and colleagues: Images cue memories (Brown et al., 2014). You may have talked to someone about your common experience. He had no idea what you were talking about. But then, you told him where that experience took place and he recalled immediately. Mnemonics, then, are the way how to make use of this in the real world.

Image source:

The mother of all mnemonics is Method of Loci (method of memory palaces). Simonides of Ceos, who lived in the fifth century B.C., found himself one day in the middle of the rubble of the great banquet hall. According to legened he realized a fascinating thing. When closed his eyes, he was able to reconstruct whole crumbled building in his head; fascinated by its clarity and vivacity. He could recall all the guests in order in which they sit at the ill-fated dinner table. He realized: If there were Greek dramatist, in order of their birth-dates, instead I could remember them (Foer, 2011). And the Method of Loci was born.
MOL2 combines elaborative coding with places we know very well. In a nutshell, take whatever information, convert it into sticky images and distribute those around a place you know very well. Your room, path to school, car´s interior, your body all those will work fine. Let´s try it for yourself!
No doubt you want to remember something useful. What about the recipe for classical Persian stew Fesenjan you have never heard of! We will need – Ground walnuts, pomegranate paste, onions and pinch of sugar. As a memory palace use some house, classical type, you know well. Let´s start.

1) We stand right before the door; first, we have to unlock it; but the keyhole is full of ground walnuts. After a while, you get angry, rush against the door and manage to get inside. Your dislocated arm pains as hell.

2) You forget your pain immediately as you see that pomegranate paste covering whole floor. In each pair of shoes near the door is a pomegranate fruit. Weird. At least weird.

3) Out of the blue, someone shouts at you: Hey dude you are uglier than usual! The someone is a big onion which is standing opposite to you. You are lucky and have some pinch of sugar in your pocket.You take the sugar and hit it to that big onion. Which is senseless enough for her to admit that you won.
It is funny, it is effective, and you can reach unbelievable thinks with it. Try to stick to the parsimony principle. The less mental energy you have to invest in recalling the better. As we know bizzarness, aggression and sex may be a good guide. Incorporating as many senses as possible, when building palaces, will also pay off. One can use palaces for shopping/to-do/checklists, school material, or remembering a poem. Mnemonics are often criticized for being useful only in rote memorization. But when used properly, they can help organize a large body of knowledge as well (Brown et al., 2014).

End Word

Many people are discouraged by the fact that it takes time and effort, which could invest in learning itself, to build the palaces. It is true. Still, you spend less time studying this way. What´s more, if you will repeat and refresh your palace for a few times you may remember it forever. The intervals at which you should repeat something to remember it forever are:
START DAY after DAY, after WEEK, after 10 DAYS, after
14 DAYS,
after MONTH, after TWO MONTHS, and after THREE MONTHS
You could set a reminder on your phone to know when to repeat. You also don´t need to make up a whole study session for this task. Refresh your palace as you are brushing your teeth or walking to school. Also, make sure you will know what place you have used for your palace; where the palace is. You can solve this problem by making a list of your palaces. Take a plain notebook or create a new Excel sheet and every time you built a new palace note there. Hits in your notebook may look like this:

date (of creating) – whatwherecue (first thing in a palace) 

20.2.2019 – Ten Russian Writers – my room – Dostoevsky weeping by my door…

Tip: If you feel like it you[can also build a meta palace with all your memory palaces inside!

The sky is the limit so try, experiment, and stick to what is working and don’t forget to let us know how you are doing!

Wish you the best of luck.

List of used sources

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick : the science of successful learning.

Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein : the art and science of remembering everything. Penguin Press.

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