Introduction to Memory Systems
Share |
The World of Mnemonics
People of the ancient world did not have the benefit of day planners, voice recorders, electronic organizers, or personal computers. An efficient memory was a necessity and the early Greeks were one of the first to develop a memory system called mnemonics.

The word mnemonic (ni-‘män-ik) comes from the Greek Goddess Mnemosyne, a daughter of Gaia and Uranus. She played a fairly minor role in the overall scheme of things but the fact that she was the mother of the nine muses provides an interesting aside to your study of memory. As a contribution to your knowledge of trivia they are:

Clio (History)
Urania (Astronomy)
Melpomene (Tragedy)
Thalia (Comedy)
Terpsichore (Dance)
Calliope (Epic Poetry)
Erato (Love Poetry)
Polyhymnia (Songs to the Gods)
Euterpe (Lyric Poetry)
An interesting aside because a highly developed memory is of great benefit to each of these creative and demanding fields as it is to all others.

What the Greeks discovered and what has been proven through research is that memory is primarily a process of Association. Every piece of information is connected to one or more other pieces of information in some way. The principle of association is the foundation from which you will improve your memory skills.

In the chapter on encoding you learned about the various ways that memories can be encoded. When you encode information you are making associations. Here is a simple illustration:

Imagine that you have lived your entire life in the far north subsisting off the bounty of the land and sea with no contact with the outside world. You are invited to visit an old friend who has tired of the lifestyle and moved to Florida.

At breakfast there is a bowl of objects on the table that your friend tells you are oranges and that they are good to eat.

Curious you pick one up and notice how round they are and how the surface has a pebbly texture. Before your friend can say anything you bite into the orange. The taste of the skin is bitter and you wonder what the attraction is! Your friend laughs and shows you how to peel it open. You smell the orange’s wonderful aroma. Then you place a piece into your mouth. The texture is pleasant and when you bite the sweet juices fill your mouth. Much better.

You have learned:
  • An orange’s shape and color (visual encoding)
  • It is called an orange (auditory / semantic encoding)
  • It has a pebbly surface (touch encoding)
  • The skin is bitter, and the pulp sweet, (taste encoding)
  • It has an aromatic scent (smell encoding)
  • It is used as food (semantic encoding)
  • You experienced it while away from home for the very first time in Florida (contextual encoding and personal relevance)
Any one of these bits of information now has the potential to act as a memory trigger allowing you to recall all that you know about an orange. The smell, the taste, the shape, Florida - all are now associated in your mind with the word ‘orange’.

This is fine for tangible items or single things but what about abstract concepts, intangibles, and items where there is no obvious association? The secret is that you can learn and remember any new information by associating it with information that you already know or by creating vivid associations between items.

Right now take a moment and picture the shape of Egypt in your mind. Having trouble?

How about Italy? Chances are you probably did much better with Italy because at some point in time you learned that it was shaped like a boot. You had made an association with something you already knew.

These associations do not require a logical connection. In fact as you will soon see, the more bizarre the association the stronger the encoding will be!

To encode strong associations you will use the technique of elaboration, which will help you to add more meaning, create vivid mental imagery, and aid recall.

Following are some elaboration tips to apply when creating your associations. You can use one, all, or any combination:
  • Substitution - An unusual or out of place item in your images enhances the recall.
  • Pleasant - Whenever possible keep your images pleasant and positive. The brain has a tendency to block unpleasant images.
  • Action - Adding action or movement to your images helps to establish a flow between the things you are trying to remember.
  • Comedy - Yes, the sillier and more absurd the images you create the more memorable they will be.
  • Exaggeration - Try exaggerating proportions of size, shape, color, quantity, etc.
If you hear your inner voice saying “but I don’t have a very good imagination” don’t worry. As you start to use this technique you will find your ability to form mental imagery increasing. So how does it work? Let’s say you need to remember to make an appointment to have some repairs made to your car. Install new tires, a new muffler, and replace a headlight. You need to form a vivid association to help you remember. For example:

Picture your car. Imagine that it has a large thermometer sticking in it’s grille (you need to book an appointment). Now look at the tires, they are round stone wheels like on Fred Flintstone’s car (you need new tires). The car is also wearing a pair of giant hearing protectors (you need a new muffler). Finally over one of the headlights is an eye patch like Pirates wear (you need a new headlight).

If you can visualize this comical picture of your car you will have no problem remembering these things the next time you look at your car or think about what needs to be done.

This association can be visualized in many different ways and your mind will create the scenario that works best for you. Try building the association around the key element and use the first images that come to your mind no matter how silly or strange they may seem.

That was a pretty easy association. Often we have to remember strange sounding words or names of people, places, or things that we are not familiar with.

When you encounter something that is abstract or difficult to picture you can use a technique called Keyword Mnemonic, which uses substitute words to build the association. You simply choose a word or words that sound like or remind you of the item you are trying to remember.

Suppose you want to form an association to help you remember the name of one our early ancestors, Neanderthal man.

The word Neanderthal does not evoke any natural images that remind us of the word so we use substitution. In this case you might come up with Knee and Earth and picture a Caveman with huge knees holding the Earth above his head. The images of Knees and Earth should be sufficient to trigger the word Neanderthal.

How about something a little trickier like the disease osteoporosis that you want to remember for an upcoming exam.

Sounds sort of like Oz-Tea-Poor-Old-Sis doesn’t it? Imagine yourself in Oz with Dorothy and the Tin man having a cup of tea with your poor old sis who is bent over from the effects of, you guessed it - Osteoporosis.

Remember, it doesn’t have to make sense or be logical. You will be amazed at the ability of your mind to recall such vivid imagery, their associations, and more importantly their meanings!

Are you wondering about all those crazy images floating around in your head and what the long-term effects on your sanity will be? Not to worry. Psychologists and memory experts agree that there is no chance of your memory filling up. Temporary things such as appointments and the associations and images you create for them will naturally be forgotten when the information is no longer needed.

To firmly place everything you do want to remember in long-term memory a little review is required. Try to go over the associations you formed for specific things a few times on the day they were created and then at least once a day for the next 4 or 5 days. The more frequent the review the more permanently they will be fixed in memory.

A pleasant surprise is that the more you review or recall information the less you will need to use the images and associations you created. Eventually you will just remember the information and the images are forgotten.

Quick Review:
  • Our memories work by association so we remember things by associating them to something we already know.
  • To form long lasting associations we use elaboration to create vivid mental images. Substitution, Comedy, Action, Pleasant, and Exaggeration.
  • With abstract concepts or when there is no obvious association we can use substitute words.
  • By reviewing the association we create we can permanently enter information into long-term memory.
Visit Our Bookstore
Buy the Amazing Memory eBook!