Mnemonic Strategies

In this video I discuss the use of mnemonic strategies to improve memory. These techniques can serve as “artificial” retrieval cues and are particularly useful for knowledge that doesn’t need to be deeply connected to other ideas, such as random facts or lists of items. Mnemonics help to organize and structure this information and aid recall using rhymes, similar sounds, or mental images. I explain how to use the Method of Loci, which is a technique of placing mental images along a familiar journey, and demonstrate this using the 7 memory failures described in previous videos. This method (also known as the Roman Room method or Journey Method) is especially helpful for preserving the sequence of items and this makes it ideal for remembering things like lists or speaking points. Finally I briefly mention more advanced mnemonic techniques which can be applied to challenges like memorizing random numbers or playing cards and which are often used in memory competitions. If you’d like to see more videos detailing advanced mnemonic techniques let me know in the comments below!


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Check out my psychology guide: Master Introductory Psychology, a low-priced alternative to a traditional textbook:

Recommended books on mnemonics:

Moonwalking with Einstein: Joshua Foer’s experience learning mnemonic strategies to compete in the US memory championship:

How to Develop a Brilliant Memory by Dominic O’Brien, 8-time World Memory Champion:

Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Michael Corayer and this is Psych Exam Review. In the previous two videos we looked at how we could apply memory concepts to improving our memory and improving our study habits and so I want to look at one final way to do this and this is the use of mnemonic strategies.

A mnemonic refers to a memory aid and the way that I like to think of mnemonics is they’re sort of like artificial retrieval cues. So what I mean by that is they allow us to connect new information to things that we already know that they might not normally be connected to. They’re not actually related but we form this temporary connection that helps us to retrieve these new memories.

Now why would we want to connect it to unrelated information? That might seem strange. Well this is especially useful when you’re first starting to learn about something you don’t have an existing knowledge structure to connect it to. So let’s say you first start learning a foreign language, it’s very hard to just memorize these new sounds, you don’t have something else to connect them to because you don’t know the language yet. So what you do is you connect them temporarily to other things that you know, maybe mental images that you create or knowledge that you already have, and that allows you to sort of get a temporary grasp on them until you can deepen your level of understanding.

This could also be applied to random information that you want that you don’t necessarily need to remember long term. You know sort of semi-long term you might need to remember for a few days or something. Like let’s say you have a long, you know 13 digit, account number that you want to make sure you remember but you don’t need it for your entire life or let’s say that you want to remember a random list of words or you want to do some sort of memory feat like memorizing a pack of playing cards. In order to do this, this is where mnemonic strategies are really helpful because you can connect this random new information to other information that you already know and you don’t necessarily need to maintain this long-term. You don’t need to really do the deep processing to really integrate this knowledge into your existing knowledge structure right? Because you might only want to remember this for a couple hours or something.

Ok, so the way that we do this, these memory aids that we use, is we usually connect it using things like rhymes or using sound-alikes, a word sounds like some other word, or using mental images So if you you know, this idea of, you know, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. I mean that’s a silly rhyme but it allows you to connect that year to this. Using this rhyme, it allows you to connect the information Columbus to this particular year.

Now this doesn’t give you an in-depth knowledge of Columbus’s journey but it gives you a starting point and then from there you can connect other things to it, right? Now you have at least one thing, you have this year, and that can be sort of the starting point that you build upon. Or you might have used the mnemonic for the color spectrum Roy G. Biv. I mean it’s this sort of meaningless thing but by giving it a name that sort of is a little bit more memorable. It’s a starting point. Now you can at least remember the order of the visible light spectrum and then from there you can deepen your knowledge and connect other things to it like about wavelengths or cone types or whatever else you want to connect to it later on.

Ok, so I want to look at what I consider to be the most useful mnemonic strategy and this is called the method of loci. So the method of loci comes from Latin for locations and this is why you may also see this called the roman room method or it’s also sometimes called a memory palace or you might see it called the journey method.

So what is this technique? This is the idea that we use knowledge that you already have to connect new information and the knowledge that we’re going to use is going to be a cognitive map that you already have. We talked about this before because we mentioned on latent learning this idea that you form cognitive maps of places. You go to a restaurant and you sort of understand the layout and you probably remember it later. Like if you think about some place that you went to a month ago you might still have a pretty good knowledge of “oh yeah we entered here and we sat over here and there was a bar area over here” or something and you do this, you don’t really have to, it’s not like you studied it. You didn’t sit down after and say “wow I really want to remember what this restaurant looked like” or your friend’s house or apartment that you visited. You sort of immediately have a knowledge of the layout that you can probably bring to mind pretty easily and again you didn’t go home and take notes and study for hours, it occurred naturally.

This is what makes this method so powerful, is that this is knowledge that you have that’s really easy to access and that you don’t have to think about studying and now what you do is you connect new information that you do want to learn to this existing knowledge structure. For instance let’s say that you wanted to remember the seven memory failures that we’ve talked about.

Now this isn’t going to help you to understand the concepts behind it but let’s say you’re just worried that “what if the teacher asks me on a test to just list a bunch of memory failures? I want to make sure I don’t forget any. You know the pressure of the test situation, even though I know what all of them refer to, I might forget one. I want to make sure I can bring it to mind.”

Ok, so what you would do is you connect each of these memory failures to a location because this is going to give you an order and a structure. For instance, if I wanted to remember the seven memory failures I would probably use my apartment and what I would do is I would start in one particular location and then just mentally travel through the apartment placing mental images for each memory failure at each location then when I want to recall the list I just mentally travel through my apartment starting at that first location and each place will remind me of a mental image and that mental image will remind me of the term that I want to remember.

Ok, let’s imagine that we were doing this, so let’s say I want to remember the first one that I talked about which was transience. Ok so, transience, what sort of mental image does that bring to mind? Well, I think of a transient hobo, right? And so I picture sort of an old-time hobo with the stick with the cloth on the end, riding the rails or something, a silly image but that would be my first starting point. That’s going to remind me of transience and that’s going to be our first memory failure. So now I just have to connect it to a location. I start in my apartment let’s say I start in the bedroom and so I open the door and I look and laying in my bed there is a transient hobo who was taking a nap. That’s a memorable image. That’s going to remind me of transience.

Now I move to the next one. So the next memory failure that we had was absentmindedness. So what’s a mental image I can create from absent mindedness? I might come up with the absent-minded professor, if you’ve ever seen that old film or you might think of the more recent version of it, still not particularly recent, was with Robin Williams called Flubber. He played the absent-minded professor and so I might imagine Robin Williams sitting at my desk doing experiments with flubber, right? And that’s going to remind me of the absent-minded professor and that’s going to remind me of absent-mindedness.

Next we have blocking. So I move to my closet and I open the door and instead of all my clothing hanging in there I picture blocks of wood everywhere. Maybe they’re children’s toy blocks or maybe they’re just blocks of wood instead of my clothes, so that’s a memorable image. That’s going to remind me of blocking. Now I might say “well, I also might forget what blocking refers to, I might want to also remember this tip of the tongue phenomenon. So now I imagine each of these little blocks of wood has a little tongue sticking out at me and that’s going to remind me of tip of the tongue and that that’s an example of blocking.

Ok, next I have misattribution so how am I going to rember this? Well I might remember this idea of you know recognizing somebody’s face but misattributing why I remember that. So I might think about the use of this in eyewitness testimony and so that might make me think of a mug shot. So I might picture a mug shot with somebody’s face on it and that I’m misattributing this face so it seems, it’s a little blurry. I’m not quite sure why I recognize this person and that will hopefully remind me of misattribution.

Now you might say “well what if I can’t come up with that term misattribution? It’s not a very common word.” So I say okay, well what can I put into the picture to remind me of that? Well, maybe maybe it’s a mug shot of a woman’s face and she’s wearing a little Miss America crown or she’s Miss Texas or whatever and that’s just enough to remind me of this miss part and that would hopefully be enough to trigger the idea of misattribution.

Ok, now moving on from there, we have suggestibility. Let’s say I move to the bathroom, I open the door and the sink is there and there’s the mirror there is broken and there’s broken glass everywhere and then I look and there’s little toy cars just crashing into each other all over the sink there. Well how’s that going to remind me of suggestibility? Well hopefully that’s to remind me of that Loftus and Palmer car study, right? Where people watched this car crash and because of the questions they were asked this influenced their memory and it changed their speed estimates and they remembered seeing broken glass that wasn’t actually there.

So this now is going to hopefully remind me of suggestibility and remind me of this example that I could, let’s say I was going to write an essay, I could remember all this, oh there was stuff about broken glass, there was a car crash and that’s going to hopefully serve as a retrieval cue for all of those memories.

Ok, next we have the idea of bias so now maybe I walk into my kitchen and I see, let’s see I need a picture for bias, and that might make me think of a scale of justice, that’s heavily tipped to one side, right? That might be a good mental representation of this idea of bias. It’s not quite fair, it’s a tipped in one direction and so hopefully that will remind me of bias and that will remind me that that is the next memory failure.

Then the last example that we have is the idea of persistence; where these memories keep coming to mind, negative emotional memories and so persistence might remind me of Salvador Dali’s famous painting The Persistence of Memory, right? This is the painting I’m sure you’ve seen with the sort of melting clocks dripping off of things and so I’m in my kitchen, I might imagine you know that dripping off the side of the counter and the refrigerator there is a bunch of clocks and hopefully that will remind me of Dali’s Persistence of Memory and that will remind me of the idea of persistence.

Now these are all personal images that I’ve come up with that I think of the word, I think how could I mentally represent that and you might have very different representations and that’s okay. The whole point is just to create a retrieval cue to give you something that you can make a mental image of and then you connect that with the location. The idea here is I don’t need to remember these memory failures in a particular order, I mean I could mix them up.

But the idea is I can mentally walk through, I know that I haven’t missed any, I’m not going to forget a random term in the middle because I’m not going to forget that you know my closet exists. I’m not going to forget, does my bathroom happen before my kitchen? When I’m walking through my apartment I’m never going to mix that up and so that’s going to sort of force me to have a structure and that structure is going to help me recall the memory.

So that’s the basic idea behind the method of loci and the great thing is you can apply this to all sorts of knowledge that you need to remember. If you need to make a speech or presentation and you’ve got 10 points that you want to make, it’s not going to help you to make those points, it’s not going to help you with the conceptual understanding, but you might be worried that you know “what if I forget point number seven in the middle of my speech? Or if I accidentally say point number eight before I say point number seven and they’re related to each other, I want to make sure I don’t mix up the order, the sequence is really important in this particular presentation”.

Well what this does is it gives you a structure to make sure that doesn’t happen. All you do is create a mental journey, place each of these points that you have a mental image for, place those along the journey and now while you’re giving your speech you can think through those locations and say “okay right now I’m in the kitchen and so I’m talking about this point and then the next point is in the living room, what was the image I had on the couch?” and that gives you the structure and that’s just enough to cue your memory. It’s an artificial cue but it will help.

Okay there’s other ways to apply this, there’s more detailed mnemonic strategies for applying this to numbers. One way you can do this is just with rhymes, so each number could be represented with a rhyming image like one is bun, two is shoe, three is a tree, or you can use the shape of the number. So one is like a baseball bat or necktie or two is a swan, it’s up to you whatever you find more comfortable and perhaps in the future I can make a series of videos specifically about more advanced mnemonic strategies.

But if you’re interested in learning more I’ll post some links in the video description where you can see some books that I’d recommend about mnemonic strategies and these are sort of taken to the extreme, where people do things like compete in the memory Olympics essentially and see who can memorize the most playing cards the fastest or the longest strings of digits and things like that. It’s not particularly useful when it comes to learning knowledge for your classes but it does show sort of the incredible capacity that we have to develop our memory if we choose to do so.

So if you’re interested you can look for more on that, maybe I can make some future videos but for now this is the basic idea behind the method of loci and how you can apply it to memorize new information. Ok, I hope you found this helpful, if so, please like the video and subscribe to the channel for more.

Thanks for watching!