Struggling to memorise everything you've learnt this year? Using a mnemonic device can help you remember all sorts of information. We look at some of the most common memory techniques.
What are mnemonic devices?
A mnemonic (you don't say the first "m") or mnemonic device is a tool that helps you remember things. With mnemonics, you associate information that you want to remember with something you already know very well, like a picture, place, person or word. This helps new information stick in the brain, and it also makes it easier for you to recall that information later.
You probably still remember some of the mnemonics you learnt as a young child. That's how effective these techniques can be, regardless of your age or learning abilities. In fact, mnemonic devices can be especially effective for students with learning difficulties.
Some of the most common mnemonic devices are acronyms, acrostics, rhymes, songs and the "Method of Loci" (or mind palace).
Also see: How to master learning with mind maps
An acronym is a word formed by the first letters of a phrase. For example, Unisa is an acronym for "University of South Africa"; Gif an acronym for "Graphics Interchange Format".
Acronyms can be used to remember a list of words. When you were little, you were probably taught that "Roy G. Biv" stands for the colours of the rainbow. This way, you could remember the specific order in which each colour appeared: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
Or, to help you remember English parts of speech, your teacher may have taught you to PAVPANIC (pronouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, adverbs, nouns, interjections and conjunctions).
To make an acrostic, you use the first letters of the items on your list to make a whole phrase or sentence. For example, to remember the planets of our solar system: "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas." The first letter of each word stands for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. If you don't include dwarf planet Pluto, you may prefer to think that "My Violent Evil Monster Just Scared Us Nuts".
Here are some famous mnemonic acrostics:
- To remember the order in which to do calculations in maths: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract).
- The specific order of the compass points: Never Eat Sour Watermelons (North, East, South, West).
- The order of sharps for music keys: Father Charles Goes Down and Ends Battle (F#, C#, G#, D#, E#, B#).
Just like acronyms, acrostics can help you learn lists of objects in a specific order. It can also help you memorise the spelling of difficult words. You may have trouble spelling the word "mnemonic", but perhaps you'll find it easier to remember that "My New Elephant May Only Nap In China".
Coming up with your own acrostics can be a lot of fun. And the weirder they are, the better. In his book on mnemonics, author Ron L. Evans reckons that the best acrostics are funny, ridiculous and even crude.
Rhymes and songs
Rhymes and rhythm make it easier for our brains to remember information. You can combine rhymes with acrostics to create an even more effective mnemonic device, like this one that helps medical students remember the different nerves: "On Old Olympus' Towering Tops, A Finn and German Viewed Some Hops" (olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, acoustic, glassopharyngeal, vagus, spinal accessory, hypoglossal).
Other famous mnemonic rhymes:
- To remember the spelling of words like "receive" and "receipt: "i before e, except after c". (beware of this one, though: there are many exceptions to this rule!)
- To remember which way to turn a screw: "Righty tighty, lefty loosey".
- To remember the year in which Columbus landed in the Americas: "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two; Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue".
Putting your rhymes to music can be very effective too: think of the songs used to teach young children the alphabet or the months of the year. But songs are not just for toddlers. In How I Met Your Mother, Marshall makes an acrostic song to remember an important password.
The method of Loci
In the TV series Sherlock, the famous detective often uses his "mind palace" to solve problems. His friend Watson describes it as a "mental map" where you "deposit memories". To recall a specific thing, "all you have to do is find your way back to it".
This technique is actually the oldest mnemonic device that we know of. It's known as the "Method of Loci" and was used by the ancient Greeks.
Here's how to do it: Imagine a place that you know very well, for example the house that you grew up in. Next, take the objects, words or names that you want to memorise and place each one in a specific room or place in that house. It helps to add some embellishments to make it more memorable: if you need to remember milk, don't just place a milk bottle on your kitchen table. Instead, give that milk bottle some legs and make it do a little dance.
When you need to recall an object, imagine where you put it, and your brain should recall the object itself. This mnemonic device may take some practice, but if done right, can be one of the most powerful techniques for remembering. It can be especially useful if you need to remember a sequence of events or want to memorise some key points for a history or literature essay: just put each point in a specific room and recall them as you "walk" through the house.
Should I come up with my own mnemonic devices?
Inventing your own mnemonics can be a lot of fun, but it's not always easy. If you're struggling to come up with your own acronyms, acrostics or rhymes, take heart: using somebody else's can be just as effective. If you need to memorise lists of information for your next exam, try googling it first. You may be surprised to find existing mnemonics for most of your subjects, whether it's the periodic table, the life-cycle of a cell, English conjunctions or the causes of World War One.
Share your stories and questions with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anonymous contributions are welcome.
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