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Mnemonic Techniques by Dr Jack Lewis

The best setting for your personal memory palace should look nothing like this! It should be a place in your real life that you know like the back of your hand.

There are a wide variety of mnemonic techniques that have been developed over the centuries, some more sophisticated than others. The first memory trick I was ever gifted was: “Richard-Of-York-Gave-Battle-In-Vain” which my primary school teacher taught the class to help us remember the order of the colours of the rainbow.

The first memory trick I ever made up, aged 14 or so, was “purple cof gas” – a memorable mnemonic for me personally because it conjoured up an image of Batman being knocked out with a big plume of noxious, magenta vapours spewing from the tip of the Joker’s umbrella. It was a vivid way to remember some relatively dull facts for when my biology exam came around: the system of  classification for living organisms. Every one knows about the Kingdoms, we’ve all heard of the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom etc. But Purple COF GaS enabled me to remember, even now 18 years later, that the correct order for the rest of the classification system was: Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. I had a test that asked about the classification system on several occasions over the years and it was Batman and the Joker that helped me get full marks in that part of the exam everytime, effortlessly…

A useful little trick, but not terribly sophisticated or flexible.  The “Memory Palace,” on the other hand, has been exploited since the Romans and Ancient Greeks. A time when poets were expected to recite 5-hour long poems from memory, word-for-word, or end up meeting an untimely demise.

It involves using a personal “Memory Palace” based on a real place that you know like the back of your hand. Each room is visited sequentially and each place and/or piece of furniture within that room visited in a specific order. This provides a mental framework in which to-be-remembered items can be “placed” to enable perfect recall when the journey is repeated in the imagination. However I’ll return to the Memory Palace at a later date in favour of explaining in more detail one that is fantastic for remembering a simple list. A list of historical events, a shopping list, a list of names, a list of points to be raised in a meeting – whatever you like. If you want a way of memorising a list so you can bring the items to mind in exactly the right order, then what I call the chain mnemonic is a great starting point.

The chain mnemonic involves vividly imagining multisensory “pairs” of memories in a manner that creates successive links between one item and the next to form a chain. I’ll walk you through an example to demonstrate how useful it can be in retaining lists of information that must be recalled in a specific order. Lets say for instance that you wanted to commit to memory every team that has won a football World Cup since its inauguration (in reverse chronological order):

Spain (2010)

Italy (2006)

Brazil (2002)

France (1998)

Brazil (1994)

West Germany (1990)

Argentina (1986)

Italy (1982)

Argentina (1978)

West Germany (1974)

Brazil (1970)

England (1966)

Brazil (1962)

Brazil (1958)

West Germany (1954)

Uruguay (1950)

Italy (1938)

Italy (1934)

Uruguay (1930)

The first challenge is to dream up a memory for the first link in the chain i.e. using your imagination to make an association between Spain and Italy that is personal to you. You create a symbolic representation in your mind’s eye for each of the two countries and then you combine them. Simple. When I personally think of Spain I think of bullfighting and matadors. When I think of Italy I think of pasta. So to create an unforgettable link between the two I imagined an action-packed, movie-esque scene with lots of bullfights and spaghetti:

Link number 1 in the chain: Spain (2010) –> Italy (2006)

A bull gushing blood (emotionally charged – shocking, disgusting etc) is charging towards the matador (fear, horror) at the centre of the bull ring. The light is glittering off his garishly decorated outfit (visual sense), the crowd is roaring their approval (auditory sense), there is an overpowering stench of sweat, dust and blood (olfactory sense), but at the moment the bull reaches the matador I realise (horrified) that the cape he is weilding is not made out of cloth, but of strands of spaghetti (emotion: strange, bizarre, worrying – HE’s GOING TO DIE!!).

Mnemonic link 1: a bullfight (Spain) that results in an explosion of spaghetti (Italy)

The matador’s sword delivers the final death blow at the moment that the bull’s horns strike the cape – ripping it to shreds and sending an explosion of spaghetti up into the air (highly exaggerated bizarre image – see left – almost like something out of a cartoon). As the bull dies it’s twitching and tossing sends more and more spaghetti into the air. This is the key image that successfully intertwines the concept of Spain with Italy – the convulsing bull spreading unfathomable quantities of spaghetti all over the bull ring. Picture this vividly, emotionally and in a multisensory fashion and you will never forget it. The spaghetti splatters the matador from head to toe, it flies high up into the sky and showers down upon the noisy crowd who are finding the spectacle hilarious (emotion: bizarre, unreal). This might seem unnecessarily elaborate, weird and harrowing – but this is what makes the memory memorable. Matador/bull = Spain (winners of the 2010 World Cup). Spaghetti covering the whole bull ring = Italy (winners of the 2006 World Cup). We have successfully created the first link in the chain. Now we have to create the second link in the chain.

Second link in the chain: Italy (2006) –> Brazil (2002)

As I’ve mentioned, it is really important for these memories to be relevant to you personally. For me, something that sticks out in my mind about Brazil is that Brasilians absolutely love to eat barbequed chicken hearts. When I first set eyes on a skewer of chicken hearts it turned my stomach (but as with many things, I ended up loving them in the end). I find piggybacking my mnemonic symbol for Brazil onto a real memory THE most effective way to make it stick. The emotionally-potent real event that I’m think of is when a waiter came over to our table in a Churrascaria (Brasilian restaurant where the waiters constantly circulate with hot meat fresh off the barbeque) with a disgusting-looking skewer of 40 or so chicken hearts. I was coerced into trying it and I’ll never forget seeing the waiter saw ten or so frazzled chicken hearts onto my plate. Everyone must find their own symbolic representations that are emotionally charged and inextricably linked to the item that you’re trying to remember, but the charred chicken heart episode is my personal symbol of Brazil (disgulpa!).

Mnemonic link 2: Ronaldinho serving BBQ chicken hearts (Brazil) onto a plate of pasta (Italy)

So link number 2, at least in my World Cup chain mnemonic, involves our matador, starving hungry (emotional drive) after a long and arduous bullfight (he’s exhausted), scooping up an armful of spaghetti from the floor all covered in blood and dust (disgusting) and plonking it on a plate at a table that has been ceremonially placed at the very centre of the bull ring. As Ronaldinho (a very famous Brazilian footballer for those who don’t follow soccer) dressed as a very formal waiter (bizarre spectacle) with his big goofy teeth (emotion: humorous) approaches the table wielding a skewer of chicken hearts in one hand (emotion: disgusting, stomach turning) and a big knife in the other (emotion: threatening).

He politely bows to the matador who signals that he wants some hearts on his plate and so Ronaldinho saws off every single chicken heart one by one onto the top of the pile of spaghetti. This is the image that forms the core of link 2: a big knife wielded by a slightly deranged-looking Brasilian footballer (scary/funny), cutting many more chicken hearts than you could ever eat in a lifetime from a BBQ skewer (disgusting) which tumble down the sides of the big pile of dusty bloody oily pasta glistening in the sun (unappetising). We have now created link number 2: Pasta = Italy (winners of 2006 World Cup) and Ronaldinho depositing chicken hearts onto the plate = Brazil (winners of 2002 World Cup).

This process continues all the way through the list. Link number 3 in the chain: Brazil –> France, for me, would involve a revolting scene whereby some of the chicken hearts sprout antennae and start crawling off the plate and leave disgusting looking slug trails all over the table. Chicken hearts are about the same size as a snail and not-dissimilar in texture, so the main image here is the chicken heart (symbol of Brazil) miraculously metamorphosising into a snail (symbol of France).

Once a chain of mnemonics has been imagined and elaborated: linking item 1 to 2, item 2 to 3 all the way to the end of the list – it must be revisited. Shut your eyes and imagine the sequence of events from link 1 to 2 to 3 and if you get stuck re-rehearse the transitions that you’re not remembering well. I cannot emphasise enough how important this step is. Focus on isolating weaknesses in the chain and making them more memorable by imaging more disgusting, horrifying, inappropriate or erotic (yes erotic – if it’s risque you’ll remember it even better) scenes and/or adding more imagined sensory information to the scenario to ensure perfect recall. From time-to-time you will have to change the symbolic representation for an item so that it fits into the flow of your chosen narrative, or you might have to change the story a little bit to make it work. Once these imperfections in recall have been identified and fixed, you’ll find that you can roll off the list of items no problem in no time at all – amazing your friends, family and colleagues with your gob-smackingly-good memory.

It may seem like a lot of effort to begin with. However, as with all things (see here for more) the more time you spend experimenting with your imagination the faster, better and more efficiently you’ll be able to create and recall the memories. After a while you’ll be able to sit down for 10 minutes with your list of to-be-remembered items, be it a shopping list, or points that you want to raise in a meeting or during a presentation without using prompts, and you’ll nail it every time.

MEMORY AND THE BRAIN – going deeper into HOW and WHY these mnemonics work so well…

Cross-sections of the memory-forming (and -retrieving) hippocampus look distinctly like a seahorse

The successful creation of memories relies upon a densely packed and highly interconnected network of brain cells called the hippocampus residing deep within the temporal lobes.

We know that the hippocampus is vital for the formation and retention of memories because when it is damaged, by oxygen starvation resulting from ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke, encephalitis, certain types of epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease, people become amnesic.

The hippocampus is so named because if you take cross-sectional slices of the temporal lobes, which run horizontally along the left and right sides of the brain, it looks like a seahorse (In greek “Hippo” means “horse” and “campus” means “sea”).

The hippocampus is densely interconnected with sensory brain areas

The hippocampus nestles inside the medial or “inward” facing part of the temporal lobe, which is a key component of the emotion-producing limbic system. So the first tip to creating memories that are easily and effectively recalled is to ensure that they incorporate some kind of potent emotion. More on this later.

The hippocampus is also highly connected to all sensory areas. Visual brain areas at the back and underside of the brain that make sense of the light that strikes the retina at the back of the eyeball feed into the hippocampus. Auditory brain areas on the upper portion of the temporal lobes that create the sounds that we hear send millions of neuronal tendrils through the hippocampus. Touch information coarses down from somatosensory areas located within regions of the parietal cortex right at the top of the brain. Tastes feed in from brain stem regions involved in processing chemical stimulation of the tongues taste buds. And smells feed directly in from the olfactory bulb directly above the nasal cavity. Consequently, the second tip for creating memories that are swiftly and faithfully recalled is to make them multisensory. So with any mnemonic strategy you must commit items to memory not just by imagining what it would look like, but also what would it sound like, smell like, feel like and taste like too. This makes them much easier to recall than unisensory memories – those that exploit only one sense. This is because multisensory memories are embedded not only in connections from the different sensory areas to the memory forming and recalling hippocampus, but also in connections between the different sensory areas. Multisensory memories are more powerful than the sum of their parts.

Emotionally-labelled memories are given special priority treatment when it comes to recall because the amygdala, a structure densely connected with the hippocampus and residing at the tips of the medial temporal lobe, becomes activated when the brain is processing emotionally-significant information, imprinting it with HIGH STATUS. The amygdala is most famously involved in the fear response, in which it responds to sensory information indicative of a threat to life and limb, by mobilising body and brain to fight or flee the danger. More recently it has been discovered that it becomes activated by stimuli that induce positive as well as negative emotions, so long as they are potent. Presumably the reason that the mechanism for making emotional inducing stimuli and events more memorable evolved is because, for the event or scene to have produced a strongly positive or negative emotional response, then it is likely to be useful to be able to recall it in the future to guide our behaviour.

So, bear THIS in mind: when dreaming up these mnemonics…

  • a disgusting scene such as someone you know vomiting in front of you
  • a funny scenario that makes you feel genuinely amused inside
  • or, perhaps, an “inappropriate” scenario such as walking in on your boss, your teacher or your parents having sex

…will be much more effective in ensuring recall than emotionally-neutral scenes. Don’t forget: as well as being multisensory in nature, your imagined scenarios must be emotionally-charged.

If you find this useful and/or interesting it would be really great if you could take the time to write a comment. I don’t get paid for this and it’s very time consuming. I do it because I’m passionate about the brain and want to share this passion with the world. So prove yourself to be one of the determined few who got right the way through to the end and please do me a favour by letting me know you’re there and leaving a comment.

All the best and enjoy expanding your mnemonic abilities, DrJ

You can also see Dr Jack’s daily #braintweets by following him on Twitter.

If you liked this post and wish to leave a comment please also drop me an email to help me locate your feedback within the sea of spambot comments to approve your one. I’d be really grateful if you would take a few moments to let me know what you found most interesting  / useful plus any suggestions for future blogs.

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12 thoughts on “Mnemonic Techniques (Memory Tricks) by Dr Jack Lewis

  1. Great information. I founded an adult day health care service in northern Arizona where seniors and disabled adults can spend the day. I’m giving a presentation on the Aging Brain, and found your web site to be invaluable. I will tell the participants in my class about it. Thank you. Linda Yee RN

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