8.6 Improving Retrieval of Memories: Mnemonic Devices
Think back to the last time you were in school and had to study for an important test. In order to prep for the test, did you organize the information in certain ways? Did you try to give yourself tricks for ways to remember the material once the test started? For example, if you have to remember the names of the five Great Lakes in Michigan, you can take the first letter of each lake and spell the word ‘HOMES.’ Then, when it’s time to take the test, all you have to do is remember ‘HOMES’, and this can be a cue for each lake: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.
This type of trick to improve memory is called a mnemonic device. In other words, mnemonic devices are methods and strategies for organizing information to improve later recall. The word mnemonic comes from the Greek word for memory, and the ancient Greeks invented some of the ways we still use today to remember things. Let’s discuss several different types. After this lesson, you can try some of the devices to help improve your own memory.
Types of Mnemonic Device
The first type of mnemonic device is the one we already discussed to remember the Great Lakes of Michigan. When we need to remember a lot of information, we can combine that information into larger units. For example, instead of remembering all five names for the Great Lakes, we give ourselves the cue of the single word ‘HOMES.’ If we can just remember this one word on the test when we need it, using our memory becomes a lot easier. This general strategy is called chunking. Chunking refers to combining several pieces of information into larger units to improve memory. There are two different specific types of chunking.
The first type is to take the first letter of each thing you want to remember and make a word out of those letters. That’s what we did with the five Great Lakes to spell the word ‘HOMES.’ This specific type of chunking is called making an acronym. An acronym is a single word in which the letters stand for something else. Another example comes from music. When you want to remember the order of notes needed to read music, the treble clef notes spell the word ‘FACE.’ A final example also comes from music. If you want to remember the four types of voice needed for a proper singing quartet, you just need to remember the word ‘STAB’, which stands for Soprano, Tenor, Alto and Bass. Don’t get confused and think that ‘STAB’ means something violent!
Another way to use chunking to remember something is to go back to the first letter in each thing you want to remember, but instead of making a single word, you take the letters and come up with a sentence that you can remember later. This technique is called the acrostic method. When you were in elementary school, did you learn the order of planets in our solar system? I learned the sentence ‘My very elegant mother just served us nine pizzas.’ If you take the first letter of each word in the sentence, it’s a cue for each planet: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Pluto. Of course, now that Pluto has been kicked off the list of planets, I’ll have to change my sentence. Now, maybe my very elegant mother just served us nectarines. Another example comes from music. Remember that to read a treble clef, the notes in the spaces spell the word ‘FACE.’ But the order of notes for the lines on the treble clef when you read music can make the sentence ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine.’
The keyword technique is a mnemonic device specifically useful for learning vocabulary words in a new language. With this technique, you create a visual image from what the new word sounds like that reminds you of the meaning of the word. Let’s go through two examples. In Spanish, the word biblioteca means library. So, how can you remember this word? You can take the word biblioteca and realize that biblio sounds kind of like the word Bible, a famous book. So, where do you keep your Bible books? In the library or the biblioteca.
Let me give you one more example. When I was in high school, I lived in Moscow, Russia for a while. In Russian, the phrase ya setah means I’m full. This phrase was useful when I was eating dinner in a friend’s house and I wanted to stop eating, but I needed to have a polite way of telling my friend’s parents that I didn’t want to eat more food. So, I had to remember how to say ya setah. I took the word setah and noticed that it sounds kind of like the word seat, which could refer to my buttocks. If I had too much to eat, my ‘seat’ would be really big, so I visually imagined having a really large seat or butt! That helped me to remember the phrase ya setah whenever I was eating, so I definitely used the keyword technique while I lived in Russia.
The final mnemonic device we’ll discuss today is called the method of loci. This is the technique that was invented in ancient Greece by philosophers like Aristotle. In Greek, the word loci is the plural of locus, which means location. So, how do locations get involved with memory?
The Greek philosophers would make long speeches in front of big audiences, and they had to remember all the points they wanted to cover in their speech. The way they would practice is that they would go to the place where they were going to make the speech and associate different parts of the speech with different specific locations there. For example, if they wanted to talk about the current leader, they might associate sitting in a particular chair with that point in the speech. They would then stand up and move over to a podium, and that would be their mental cue to talk about the next point, which might be something about the role of democracy in politics. Each specific movement or location around the room was a cue for the next point in the speech because when they would practice, they would mentally associate those two things together.
But how can you use the method of loci for average memory tasks today? The way people use this method now is a slight modification. Imagine that you need to go to the grocery store, and you need to remember to buy milk, eggs and bread. In order to remember this list at the store, you can try to tie each item with a location that you’ll be able to easily remember once you get to the store.
A common method for people to use is the rooms in their house. Let’s say that as soon as you walk into your house, the first room is a foyer or entryway. Imagine you came home and saw a huge cow standing there! That can be your cue to remember to buy milk. Then imagine that you walked into the next room, which is the family room, and you saw that someone had thrown eggs all around the room. What a mess! Finally, you then walk into the next room, which is the dining room, and you see that someone has already set up dinner, starting with a nice basket of warm bread. Now you drive to the store, and you need to remember what to buy. All you have to do is mentally walk through your house. What was in the entryway? Oh yeah – it was a cow, so you need to buy milk. What was in the next room? A bunch of broken eggs – so you need to buy eggs! Finally, you remember imagining the dining room with the basket of bread, so you remember to buy bread. By mentally pairing specific locations with items you want to remember, you have successfully made use of the method of loci.
There are several other mnemonic devices. You might have already used some of these in the past when you were studying or trying to remember what to buy at the store, or you might try using them the next time you need to remember something. If you think these methods might be helpful, be sure to look up other types of mnemonic devices.
In summary, mnemonic devices are methods and strategies for organizing information to improve later recall. There are several different types. Chunking is a technique in which several items are smooshed together into fewer units. Two examples of chunking are acronyms, like ‘HOMES’ for the Great Lakes or the acrostic method, which creates a new sentence, like ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine’ for musical notes. The keyword technique is for learning vocabulary words in another language, and it pairs what the word sounds like with a visual image that’s tied to the meaning of the word. Finally, the method of loci pairs items to be remembered with specific locations. All of these techniques might help you as you study for your next test!
After watching this lesson, you should be able to identify and define the different mnemonic devices and understand how to use them.