How can you improve your memory? Do you instantly forget someone’s name after being introduced? Ever forgotten a birthday, grocery items, or important events on your “to do” list? Having a mnemonic device, such as a mental picture or visual imagery of something is an effective way to remember. Mnemonic devices were named after the Greek word for memory and were developed by ancient Greek scholars and orators as aids in remembering lengthy passages and speeches. 1 Using the “method of loci” the scholars imagined themselves progressing through a series of familiar locations, such as rooms in their homes, associating each place with a visual representation of the to-be-remembered topic. While speaking, the orator would mentally revisit each location and easily retrieve the associated image.2 Try a mental walk through your own home, placing something to be remembered (like items to pack for a trip) on a piece of furniture in each room. Works well, doesn’t it? A variation of this method involves pairing animated stories with the words to be remembered. Gordon Bower and Michael Clark performed a study using lists of unrelated nouns. One group simply studied the lists. The other group invented stories using the nouns. A sample made-up story could look something like this: “A LUMBERJACK DARTed out of a forest, SKATEd around a HEDGE past a COLONY of DUCKs. He tripped on some FURNITURE, tearing his STOCKING while hastening toward the PILLOW where his MISTRESS lay.” Both groups worked through 12 lists of 10 words each. The group that just studied the nouns could only recall 13 percent of the words, but the group who placed the words into a vivid story recalled an amazing 93 percent. 3 Some mnemonic devices involve both acoustic and visual codes. One example is the “peg-word” system, which requires the memorization of the following jingle: One is a bun; two is a shoe; Three is a tree; four is a door; Five is a hive; six is sticks; Seven is heaven; eight is a gate; Nine is swine: ten is a hen. The point is to count with peg-words instead of numbers and then visually associate the peg-words with tobe-remembered items. Remembering a grocery list becomes quite simple. If you need eggs, picture them in a bun. If you need milk, imagine it being poured into a shoe. If you need toilet paper, think of it as hanging from a tree. Tricks like these are often behind the seemingly amazing feats of those who repeat long lists of names and objects.4 So, master this technique. You’ll impress your friends and astound your family! Another mnemonic device involves chunking, or organizing items into familiar, manageable units. This often requires creating acronyms or sentences to correspond to the first letters of the words to be remembered. For example, the names of the Great Lakes in North America spell HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). Many of you have heard of ROY G. BIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue indigo, violet), but did you realize that it lists the colors in order of their wavelengths? 5 Chunking is also useful for remembering numbers, especially if they can be arranged in meaningful units. Most people have a capacity to remember seven digits, but this can be increased by breaking the digits down into recognizable groups of 3 or 4. For example, this string of 16 digits seems impossible to remember: 1-4-9-2-1-7-7-6-1-8-1-2-1-9-4-1. However, the sequence becomes quite simple for those who know American history: 1492, 1776, 1812, and 1941 are three easy chunks to remember. 6 1 2 David G. Myers, Psychology, 5th ed. (New York: Worth Publishers, 1998), p. 277. Ibid., p.276 3 Ibid., p.277 4 Ibid., p.278 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid.
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