Mnemonics: The Forgotten Art of Memory


There used to be a time when memory was the foundation of an intelligent person. Before books, cellphones, and computers, everything a person learned had to be stored inside their mind.

In Ancient Greece, scholars would use elaborate memory techniques to remember full speeches, poems, stories, and historical facts.

Today we don’t have as much of a need to learn these memory techniques (often referred to as “mnemonics”). We don’t need to “internalize” memories, because we can just “externalize” our memories in whatever device we are closest to.

For example, how often do you really remember someone’s phone number? You probably just enter it into your phone right away as someone tells you it. Or at worse you write it down on a piece of paper.

A recent study shows how our reliance on smart phones leads to more “lazy thinking.” In many ways, technology teaches us that we don’t have to use our minds anymore.

And of course technology has been a huge benefit to society, but in what ways can learning mnemonics and the “art of memory” still benefit us today?

Mnemonics: The Forgotten Art of Memory

Mnemonics was a once common art of using particular techniques to improve the strength of you memories. These techniques were popular back when people really needed to rely on their mind’s ability to keep track of information.

In Joshua Foer’s fascinating book Moonwalking With Einstein, Foer goes on a year long journey learning these different techniques from the greatest memory experts in the world, and eventually competes in the U.S. Memory Championship and World Memory Championship.

The people who compete in these memory championships call themselves “mental athletes.”

They spend many hours deliberately practicing these techniques to the point of perfection, all in the name of remembering decks of cards, long strings of numbers, lists of names and faces, and other seemingly trivial facts.

Many of these mental athletes are the last bastion of people still seriously practicing mnemonics and the “art of memory.”

“Moonwalking With Einstein” is a fantastic introduction to this particular world, but I’ll try my best to introduce some of the ideas here. First we need to know more about how memory works.

How Memory Works

Memory is our brain’s ability to encode, store, and retrieve information. Psychologists often separate memory into 2 main categories: Short-term Mmmory and Long-term memory.

Short-term memory (or “working memory”) is our ability to retain information for short periods of time, usually between a few seconds to a minute.

In George Miller’s famous paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” it was discovered that the average person’s short-term memory is about 7 bits of information at a time, though a more recent study shows this number may be closer to 4.

One ability to improve short-term memory is a process known as chunking, where several bits of information get processed as one. This technique is common in phone numbers. For example, the number “123-456-7891” is 10 bits of information chunked into 3 bits.

Long-term memory is our ability to retain information for much longer periods of time (hours, days, months, years). Often how an experience is processed in our “short-term memory” is going to influence how well it sticks into our “long-term memory.”

Most of what we process on a daily basis gets easily remembered and forgotten. Our brain is constantly sifting through our experiences, deciding what information is worth keeping and what information is worth getting rid of.

It takes too many mental resources to remember every single detail of our day, so our brain filters through information and decides what is meaningful and significant. This is usually what gets stored in our long-term memory.

What Makes a Memory Stick?

The art of memory is the art of building rich associations.

The more associations that are built with a certain memory, the more that memory is going to stick in your brain. It’s difficult to remember an isolated fact, but it’s much easier to remember a fact that is embedded in a rich context.

One of the pearls of wisdom Joshua Foer receives in Moonwalking With Einstein is that, “it takes knowledge to build knowledge.”

A dedicated baseball fan is more likely to remember the details of an inning than someone who has never watched baseball before. Our memories of events depend on how well we can put them into context.

When Foer went sight-seeing in China, he was mesmerized, but he couldn’t really remember much of the details of the event because he had no prior knowledge of Chinese history to relate it to. He had no context to fill the details in.

Mnemonics depends on our ability to build richer associations with whatever it is we are trying to remember.

You may remember some mnemonics used in school, such as singing your ABC’s to remember the alphabet, or using a picture to help remember words, or a simple phrase like “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” as a way to remember mathematical operations.

(Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction – you see, I still remember!)

All of these mnemonic devices are ways to build more memorable associations with what it is we want to learn. These mnemonic devices often make it much easier to remember something than through simple repetition.

Moonwalking With Einstein is a fascinating journey into the under-appreciated art of mnemonics. The author Joshua Foer meets up the world’s best memory experts, learns their techniques, and then participates in the World Memory Competition.

Using Your Imagination to Build Stronger Associations

Mnemonics is ultimately an exercise in using your imagination.

When mental athletes try to remember a list of objects, they often visualize each object in their mind’s eye in a vivid and unique way that’s hard to forget even if they wanted to.

Mnemonics can often be broken down into 2 main abilities:

  • Visualization – This is the ability to create a visual representation of what you want to remember and see it clearly in your minds eye.
  • Spatial Awareness – This is the ability to store each visualization in an orderly mental space.

Many who practice mnemonics create what is known as a “Memory Palace.”

A “memory palace” is just a detailed memory of a place that you are very familiar with. You can then use this memory to store your new memories.

For example, a common “memory palace” for people to use when first starting mnemonics is their childhood home.

Think of your own childhood home for a second. You probably still remember where all the rooms are located, and even many particular details about each room (where the TV used to be, where the fridge used to be, etc.)

If you were trying to remember a list of groceries, you could visualize every item in a weird and unique way, and then store these visualizations in your childhood home.

When Joshua Foer first learned how to use mnemonics in Moonwalking With Einstein, this was the type of exercise he had to do.

Here’s a simple exercise to practice mnemonics for yourself.

Mnemonics Exercise – “Grocery List”

Now let’s try using mnemonics to remember a grocery list of 20 items.

As an example, let’s start with:

  • Apples
  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Turkey

First visualize your childhood home (or your current home) – this will be your “Memory Palace” where you will store your new memories.

Now start outside in front of your home and try to visualize each object in an interesting way:

  • Since the first item you have to remember is “Apples,” you could visualize 3 giant Apples outside. Make them smiling, dancing, singing, and having a good time at their Apple party.
  • The next item is “Bread,” so you could visualize your mailbox filled with Bread, so much so that it continues overflowing, like a never-ending waterfall of Bread coming out of your mailbox.
  • Now we have to remember “Eggs,” so you could visualize yourself opening your front door and the first thing you see in front of you is a complex pyramid of giant Eggs right as you walk in. An Egg pyramid, built by pharaoh Chickens, all the way to the ceiling.
  • And the next item is “Milk,” so you could visualize whatever room is to your left being filled up with Milk. Picture a Milk swimming pool just sitting there in the middle of the room, with someone swimming in it.
  • The final item is “Turkey,” so you could visualize whatever room is to your right as a Turkey petting zoo, with a bunch of children yelling and screaming as they run around the Turkeys.

This is just an example, but you get the idea. Yours will likely be a bit different depending on your individual “memory palace” as well as your own sense of imagination.

Make a list of 20 objects and try it out for yourself. Give yourself however much time is necessary to go through each item, create a unique visualization, and then store it in your “memory palace.”

Also, try not to be too hard on yourself – learning mnemonics takes deliberate practice and this is only your first attempt!

One interesting thing you’ll find is that these memories will last much longer than expected. It’s likely if you do this exercise effectively once, you’ll still be able to recall the same associations days, week, and even months later.

Exaggerate, Exaggerate, Exaggerate!

One general rule of thumb when using mnemonics is that the more exaggerated and bizarre the visualization, the more likely it will stick with you.

This is why it helps to make things really large, or add faces to inanimate objects, or have your images doing really silly things, or make your images defy the laws of physics.

Anything that would make a lasting impression on your mind if you saw it in the real world is likely a good candidate for imprinting a visualization in your memory.

In Moonwalking With Einstein, one of Foer’s teachers even tells him to fill his memory palaces with hot women to make them more memorable. And some of the Ancient Greeks were known to make their visualizations disgusting and repulsive to make them stick better.

Of course using your imagination takes practice. You may have a hard time at first thinking of weird and memorable scenarios, but with time and patience they will come to you much easier.

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