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 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.
In this article, we’re going to learn a bit more about using mnemonics for memorization to assist in learning all kinds of subjects: new languages, scientific concepts, legal principles, and just about anything else. Let’s get down to business.
Using Mnemonic Devices for Learning
The roots of mnemonic devices for memorization 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.
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).
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 spacial reasoning brainpower 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 Promise of Mnemonics
For people who have to memorize and store a huge amount of new information, like people studying for medical school, law, or a new language, the techniques of mnemonics can be invaluable. As the alphabet song demonstrates, even the simplest lessons can benefit from these methods. It’s important to remember, however, that mnemonics can only take you so far. You still have to put in the work of memorization in other ways, such as flashcards, as well.
Do you have any mnemonics that you’ve remembered for years? Any creative ones that you’ve made up yourself? Let us know in the comments!
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