If you haven’t read my primer ‘what is a mnemonic’, it’s probably best to read that first.
This is going to sound like the start of a remarkably bad Dan Brown novel*, but it’s true. I recently discovered that the key to writing good mnemonics is hidden in religious medieval paintings.
“Saint Sebastian? Well, it’s a little more complicated with him. He was shot full of arrows, but he did not die, miraculously, so he was later clubbed to death, but he is traditionally shown with arrows sticking out of him. This symbolism is what we call iconography. You can begin to associate a certain saint with a certain object, so that the object can act either as a stand-in for the saint, or as an identity badge.”
The Art Thief – Noah Charney
With the more advanced memory systems (linked, peg, journey, memory palaces, etc) iconography and a bit of lateral thinking can help:
Differentiate between similar looking objects
In medieval artwork, iconography allows us to tell similar looking people apart and the same idea can readily be applied to the mental pictures we create. In computing revision this is especially useful to distinguish between different editions of the same hardware.
Stand in for information that is difficult to visualise
Take, for example, the theory of gravity. Gravity isn’t something that we can visualise, but, as Newton supposedly discovered it when he was hit on the head with an apple, there’s a very logical symbol we can use to signify it.
Facilitate combining objects in a linked/peg mnemonic
A common problem with linked mnemonics can be creating a narrative using lifeless objects..
If you are memorising a shopping list with milk, potatoes, and bananas, you might visualise a potato falling into a bucket of milk but, in your story, you would need to somehow get the potato to hop out of the bucket and interact with a banana.
It is possible to write a linked mnemonic with no storyline, simply a series of unconnected combinations (milk with potato, potato with banana), but these can be ineffective – if the first mental association with ‘potato’ is especially strong it can crowd out the second association.
With iconography, you can easily switch items for more lively symbols: the milk for a cow, the potato for Mr Potato Head, or the banana for a gorilla.
The opposite situation can also occur, where you are linking a string of people together. Unless you want your mnemonic to be a line of people shaking hands with one another, you can substitute in symbolic objects. If one of the people is a sports star, you might represent them with a tennis racquet and use them to connect two other people using a game of tennis.
Represent the same information in many different mnemonics
If the same object appears in a number of mnemonics, you may find that the memories get confused. One way to overcome this is to stage your mnemonics in very distinct locations, but if this isn’t enough you can use symbols.
To return to the example of Saint Sebastian, not only can you use an arrow in place of him, but there are a huge variety of ways that you can visualise an arrow – painted on a wall, shown on a road sign, fired from a bow, or as a tattoo.
*At no point during this discovery were Audrey Tautou and I chased across Paris by evil albino monks which, frankly, is something of a let down.