One of the best tried-and-true tactics for memorizing a great deal of material is the use of mnemonics: patterns of letters, ideas, sounds, or other associations that assist in learning something.

Probably the simplest example of a mnemonic is the alphabet song. All of us probably learned to sing the ABCs in kindergarten, and we’re willing to bet you still remember that song today. It’s ingrained in your brain through the use of a mnemonic.

Yet although mnemonics is a great memorization technique for internalizing concepts, it does mean learning yet ANOTHER thing in addition to your workload. Knowing how we learn is an important consideration before adding in more work.

Brainscape has decided to weigh in on this topic. Having collected decades of learning research for our seminal guide on how to study more efficiently with LESS total effort, we are intrigued to examine whether mnemonics are worth the added mental effort.

Using mnemonic devices for learning

The roots of mnemonic devices as a memorization technique stretch back into antiquity. It is well documented that the ancient Romans and Greeks knew and valued mnemonic techniques, practicing them to ease the demands of poetry recitations, public speaking, and other tasks.

This is one of the most common mnemonic devices in biology and helps us remember the order of taxonomic ranks.

Basic mnemonic memorization revolves around associations.

The most basic mnemonic devices in the English language include the alphabet song, as mentioned above, and ROYGBIV, the acronym for the colors in the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Another common mnemonic is the phrase, “i before e except after c,” which encodes spelling information (although there are many exceptions to this rule. Often the word “weird” is used to remind students of these exceptions, as it both ignores the rule and describes the non-adherence of certain, unusual words).

Here's another common mnemonic device for chemistry to help you remember the seven elements that form diatomic molecules.

The mind palace

Cicero, the famous Roman writer and orator, write in his book De Oratore (55 BCE) of a memory aid called the “method of loci,” sometimes called the “mind palace” technique. In this method of memorization, a person uses their spatial reasoning brain power to organize and store memory inside an imagined building or geographic space.

It’s a process that gained some notoriety in recent years due to the BBC show Sherlock, which features a young savant Sherlock Holmes using the mind palace technique to recall vast quantities of information that assist him in solving complex and diabolical crimes.

To build a mind palace, a person begins with the blueprint of a physical location (which could be a room, building, or even town or landscape). The larger or more detailed the location, the more data can be stored there. Then, they create a path through the location that they can follow during every “visit,” and begin to associate objects or landmarks in the mind palace with specific pieces of information.

The caution with mnemonics

For people who have to memorize and store a huge amount of new information, like people studying for medical school, law, or a foreign language, the techniques of mnemonics can be invaluable. As the alphabet song demonstrates, even the simplest lessons can benefit from these methods.

However, it's important to weigh how much added memory the mnemonic imposes onto the task in the first place, and if the initial concept was really that difficult to warrant the added burden?

For example, one common medical mnemonic to remember that the word "gastric" refers to the stomach is to imagine a big ol' stomach sitting on the bed of a "gas truck". That's a cute image, but seriously, is the word "gastric" really that hard to remember? Even I knew that word, and I didn't take much more science than college Biology myself.

Some things just aren't that hard to remember, and you can likely get the job done with regular old-fashioned repetition.

Spaced Repetition beats mnemonics any day

While it's true that our brains are heavily visual and adept at creating such associations as "memory palaces", it's also true that the real way we learn is by the stress placed on neurons during retrieval practice. Brain cells grow when we attempt to remember something that is just at the fringe of our zone of proximal development.

This is why flashcards are so effective when used correctly. They allow us to break learning into its individual learning objectives where we have to retrieve the answer in our heads, using active recall. And then we're able to assess our own knowledge in the flashcard to determine how soon we need to review it again.

The systematic pattern of spaced repetition has been shown to be the single most important factor in how well we will remember something.

Using a spaced repetition system (SRS) like Brainscape – with web and mobile flashcards that repeat in optimal interviews according to your confidence ratings – can help you learn much faster than other study techniques and at a fraction of the added mental overhead.

That said, it’s of course important to remember that either mnemonics or Brainscape can only take you so far. You still have to put in the work of memorization in other ways, such as flashcards, as well.

So get to work, make yourself more motivated to study, and prepare to rise to whatever challenge you're facing!

[See more on how to memorize vocab words more efficiently.]