Tool Module: Two Classic Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic devices, which help us store as much information as possible in our neurons, were not invented yesterday. The basic principles of the art of converting information into strong, memorable mental images were known to the ancient Greeks.

- Associating new items with known items

This method has been used for more than 2000 years. It enabled Roman generals to remember the names of thousands of legionaries, and medieval monks to memorize hundreds of prayers. The very first mention of the use of place/object associations as a mnemonic device dates back to the Greek poet Simonides, who was born in 556 B.C. Just minutes after he had left a banquet, the pillars of the house where it was being held collapsed, and the roof fell in on the remaining guests. People wanted to hold a funeral service for those who had died, but their bodies could not be recovered, and there was no record of who had been there. The call went out to Simonides who, by remembering where everyone had been sitting in the banquet hall, was able to remember the faces and names of all the missing guests.

Thus, to remember a list of items, you can form a memorable association between each of these items and another one in a different set of items with which you have long been familiar. For example, to remember the items in your grocery list, you could associate each one with a landmark in the park that you have been crossing for years on your way to school. You could imagine containers of yogurt sprouting up in that row of poplars. You could imagine that orange juice was flowing out of the central fountain, that the lawn bowlers were playing with cantaloupes, that the children were throwing bagels instead of Frisbees, and so on. When you went to the grocery store, you would have no trouble remembering your route to school, since you know it so well. And as if by magic, you would easily remember every item in your grocery list, too. The silliest associations can sometimes be the ones that jog your memory best, because their unexpectedness catches your attention.

- Combining several items into one

By combining several items into a single, meaningful whole, you reduce the number of items, thus making them easier to remember. For example, the nine planets in the Earth’s solar system, are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. But instead of trying to remember all nine items separately, you could just remember the phrase “My very easy method, just set up nine planets.”

Another classic example of this kind of mnemonic device helps you remember the notes on the treble clef in music: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (or Fudge or Fun). Try making up some of your own. For example, to remember the order of the taxonomic categories in biology, you might say: Kids prefer cheese over fried green spinach. (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species)


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