Mnemonics – Memory Cues
Why we need them?
Our brains are working hard all the time, sifting through the input from our senses and sending it to short term memory from whence it is allocated to long term memory according to importance and significance. That happens every waking moment and we are not conscious of it happening. Sometimes, however, we have to make a conscious effort to remember specific things, whether to get through an exam and ultimately qualify for that dream job or something as mundane as the ingredients in a recipe so you don’t have to keep checking back to the book.
What they are.
Mnemonics are cues that you can use to remind yourself of specific information. The word mnemonic means ‘aiding memory’ and the concept has been around since ancient Greece. As we have seen in other articles on this website, our brain likes to store things in chunks and build associations so that by remembering one thing, it calls up a string of other things. This makes it easier for our brains to find the information we are looking for.
This is most useful for remembering facts and makes use of your brain’s ability to make associations. For example if you are trying to remember the names of the Great Lakes in North America, you can use the first letter of each lake in a specific order to remember the names of all of them. Thus, the first letters of Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior spells the word HOMES. First letter mnemonics are very effective as your brain only has to remember one letter to find the rest of the word and that word then brings along the other words or facts.
How to Create a Mnemonic.
If the facts that you have to remember don’t make sense in terms of first letters spelling words, you can use numbers, rhymes, visualisations or other cues. To create a mnemonic you need to follow three basic steps:
- Decide what you want to remember.
- Match what you want to remember with an image or word cue.
- Refer to the cue to recall your memory.
Visualisations and Mental Images.
Visualisations also help us to remember things. It is very hard for us to remember an object if it has only been described to us verbally and we have never seen it, either in reality or in a photograph or illustration. For example, if you have seen the iconic painting of Napoleon on his horse with his characteristic hat, rousing his men to battle, and keep that mental picture in mind when you are studying Napoleon for your French history exam, remembering the image will help you remember the facts that you have learned that go with the image.
Word Pegs and Rhymes
When you were a small child, learning your numbers, do you remember a rhyme that went like this? “One, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, knock on the door” and so on? This was building associations between the correct order of numbers in counting with everyday activities that are meaningful to a small child. This makes use of peg words so ‘two’ rhymes with ‘shoe’ and you associate the one with the other.
Rhymes are great aids to memory as our brains appreciate patterns and repetition. This is why it is easy to remember the words of a song or learn to recite a poem, even if the words themselves are actually meaningless to us, and this type of memory is the last to go in people with dementia and so on.
The song ‘Do-re-mi’ from the hit musical ‘The Sound of Music’ taught millions of children around the world the tonic sol-fa without their even realising they were learning something. For more information about this fascinating way of simplifying reading and learning music, go to http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2015/03/sound-of-music-history-do-re-mi/
The Three ‘R’s and Rote Learning
Rote learning and drills are popular ways of getting children to learn things, from spelling and language to multiplication tables and the naming of parts. They form the basis of many educational systems and give us the basic building blocks of the Three ‘Rs’ of education (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic – yes, another mnemonic!). Without the basics of language and vocabulary we cannot absorb and make sense of the world around us or express our thoughts and feelings.
The Difference Between People and Parrots
They don’t, however, actually give us any real understanding of the meaning of what we are learning or encourage critical thought and analysis so ‘learning by heart’ is not a solution to everything. We have to think as well as remember. Otherwise we are just like parrots. Use tools like mnemonics to remember the critical facts that you need to know in an accessible way but always make sure that you understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’.