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What is a mnemonic?

A mnemonic is a technique used to help people remember information more easily. There are many different techniques, some dating back to the ancient Greeks. They tend to work as prompts for your memory, rather than as a replacement for it.

The simplest mnemonic method is an abbreviation. Good examples of this are company names like KFC or the BBC. They are fairly limited in application and used more for convenience than to help aid memory.

One of the most widely known techniques is an acrostic. This is where each letter of a special word stands for another word. They are commonly used in the medical profession; for example, the word FAST is used to recall the symptoms of a stroke.

  • Face (facial droop)
  • Arms (weak, numb)
  • Speech (slurred)
  • Time (speed of treatment is critical)

There is, however, a different type of acrostic, where the first letter of each word in a phrase represents another word. Each word in the sentence ‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain’ corresponds to the first letter of one of the colours in the rainbow (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).

Acrostics can be exceptionally useful to remember a small number of items and, if they rhyme, they easily stick in the mind. Unfortunately they aren’t particularly easy to write.

To help remember longer lists of items there are some more advanced, but very powerful memory techniques.

Peg system

The easiest way to explain the peg system is with an example. For each number in a sequence there is a matching object called a ‘peg’:

  1. Gun
  2. Shoe
  3. Tree
  4. Door
  5. Hive
  6. Sticks
  7. Heaven
  8. Gate
  9. Wine
  10. Hen

In order to use the system you first need to memorise the pegs – this is fairly easy because the pegs sound like the numbers that they represent. There is no shortcut here, you just have to learn them.

Once you have the pegs memorised, you can remember a list of practically any ten objects in only a couple of minutes. You do this by combining each new object with a peg in a weird mental picture.

Let’s say that you need to memorise a shopping list and the first item is a bottle of milk. You could create a mental picture of a gun squirting jets of milk out of its barrel. You repeat this process, combining each object on the shopping list is with its own peg.

Now when you go through the numbers from one to ten, the related peg should trigger a memory of the item on your shopping list.

One > Gun > Memory of gun squirting milk > Milk

With a little practise it becomes easy to create and remember these images. What is mnemonic? Mnemonic is colourful, noisy, emotional, and often just plain bizarre. The more engaging a visualised picture is, the easier it will be to remember.

Link system

A simpler system is the link mnemonic. In this method each object in the list that you are trying to memorise is linked to the next by a simple story.

So, in the case of a shopping list, a cow (representing milk), might slip on a banana skin (representing bananas), which flies through the air and lands on top of a large egg (eggs), which hatches into pig (sausages), and so on, through each item on the list.

I actually find these hard to write as creating a memorable narrative that works to connect each of the items can be tricky, depending on the items.

Journey system

Perhaps one of the most popular mnemonic methods used in memory competitions is the journey method. It uses pegs, like the peg system, however the pegs are locations on a journey.

To use it, choose a route that you know well and pick out the landmarks. Yours might include: a bridge, a roundabout, a train crossing, and a lake.

Combine each item with a location by exaggerating the items, or by giving the location properties of the item. This might mean that you picture the bridge as white with black spots, like a cow, or there might be a giant egg floating in the lake.

By mentally walking through the route you should be reminded of all the items on your shopping list.

The journeys don’t need to be huge, you might plan a route around your kitchen instead. In this case the landmarks might include your toaster, microwave and washing machine.

Memory palaces

One variation on the journey system is a memory palace – an imaginary building where you can create an infinite number of rooms and routes. These can be based on real places, or entirely fictional.

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