EP6: Mnemonics and memorization of study materials.

Hello everyone and welcome back. This is episode six, season one of the Autodidactic Podcast. Today I will to cover the topic of memorisation. Last week I said I would be covering study methods and mnemonics but I’m going to focus only on mnemonics this week since it is quite a big topic. I would also like to say thank you to a listener, Janice who requested I do a show dedicated to mnemonics and memorisation.

Many years ago I read a study which suggested engineers who graduated with a bachelors degree in engineering would have all of there memory outdated in 10 years. All of the knowledge they gain in their university time would have been superseded within 10 years, with new information and new techniques and new materials. Information is growing at such a huge rate in modern times that if you’re not studying every day then you’re not just standing still, you’re actually going backwards.

So why have I put mnemonic tricks ahead of real study methods? Firstly these aren’t tricks, they are methods known to work and proven to work over hundreds of years, and in some cases even centuries. Now rote memorisation gets a bad rap nowadays, but it can come in very handy. For example, you can remember formulas off the top of your head. If you’re learning a foreign language can help you with memorisation of various items like vocabulary retention. If you were learning some mechanical process which required you to remember the sizes of all of the adapter assemblies and they were various sizes from 13 mm to 110mm you could use these techniques to do that.

Lets get into it. Today we’ll discuss Mnemonics techniques. Mnemonics is a word derived from the old Greek Goddess of memory. The systems we’ll talk about today aren’t new. For example, the System of Loci dates back to 500 BC. Mnemonics refer to a technique to improve memory and they can be either visual or verbal. They normally add something to the information to be memorised in order to make it more memorable, so many scientists researching memory call them elaborations.

The first of the three basic mnemonics we’ll talk about it rhyming. You’ll probably know this one from the rhyme beginning “Thirty days has September…” and if you’re like me, “Thirty days has September, and the rest I don’t remember.”

This is an example of using a verbal technique to elaborate the memory. But remembering months and the number of days can be done with a visual technique also. If you hold your hands out in front of you and make a fist, the knuckle of the little finger is January, the valley between that and the next knuckle is February and so on. So all the “knuckle months” have 31 days and the rest are short months.

Today I’m going to cover number of mnemonic systems, both visual and verbal. The first two were really easy and straightforward, and the remainder require some actual upfront learning, and can take some preparation before you can actually begin to use.

The first two that we can discuss are easy and anyone can use them. They require no previous knowledge or ability or system.

The first one is simply creating a word from the initial characters of the thing that you want to remember. This is called an acronym. You may or may not know that laser stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. You can use the word homes to describe the great lakes in the United States. Homes will give you a memory prompt for the names; Lake Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Eire and Superior. There is also Roy G Biv. Which is a prompt for colours of the rainbow.

You can use this type of mnemonic really easily. You just have to take the information and organise it in a way that can come up with a word. When doing this if you come across two issues. The first issue is if it needs to be learned in order then you cannot necessarily use this type of mnemonic, because unless it accidentally becomes a word you can’t rearrange the letters.

But if you can rearrange the information and you can rearrange it into a word that the second problem that you may have with this method is that there isn’t sufficient amount of words that are long enough to encode all the information.

So if you encounter these problems you’re better off using a sentence rather than a word. These types of prompts are called Acrostics. Here you make a sentence using the first letter of the words you wish to recall.

Sentence systems like the one to remember the planets of the solar system where you put each letter rather than representing a ladder, you have a word that represents the initial information.

For example: My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us New Potatoes.

Of course now that scientists have demoted Pluto from being a planet, you’ll need a new sentence to memorise the planets in order from the sun.

Both Acronyms and Acrostic sentences are a great way to remember information, but if you want to remember things like PI to 50 decimal places, or countries and capitals, or simply a lot of related or ordered information then some of the next few techniques are more useful. But some require some up front work.

The first system we’ll discuss if a simple one and easy to use. It is called the Link or Chain system. Here you simply link concepts or things together two at a time. For example if you needed to remember 5 things such as; Doctor, Car, Candle, Rose, Ball then you would chain them together by first imagining a Car riding on a doctors back. Images which are unusual or out of the orginary are more easily remembered. The you imagine the car covered in hundreds of burning candles moving slowly forward as not to blow them out. Movement in visual images are also helpful. Then you imaging a rose bush growing out of a candle, or perhaps a candle holder with a burning rose instead of a candle. Then you link rose and ball by perhaps a rose bush playing soccer, or two people playing catch with a rose instead of a ball.

An improvement on this technique is called the Story. Here instead of linking the items to each other, you tell a story which includes the items. For example, The doctor was jumping up and down screaming because he lost the keys to his car, so he made a key from wax using a candle and managed to drive to the rose garden where he began to operate on a giant plastic ball.

These two systems are easy to use and very useful, however, people often struggle to remember more than 20 items using these methods. This is normally because of the limitation of remembering each item based on its association with the previous item.

Another system which doesn’t have this limitation and which I mentioned earlier is from 500 BC can is called the Loci system. Loci is the plural of locus and means places or locations. This system requires some pre-learning before you can use it. It is a two step process and the first step is to memorise a set of locations in order. Normally you would use something familiar to yourself such as your house. The second step is to mentally place the thing you want to remember in a place as you move through your loci.

So to create your loci or memory palace as they are sometimes called start with somewhere familiar. Lets use your home as the example. First imagine yourself approaching the house and the first loci may be your front door. Inside you walk in and see the hallway. The next room might be your kitchen, then a bedroom. You just need to imagine a journey through your house, room to room and always go the same way.

Now just take a mental walk through your house putting things in different rooms. When you want to remember them, you simply walk through the house again and remember the things you put there. You might thing you don’t have enough rooms to remember what you need, but loci doesn’t have to be just the room. It could be the living room, the sofa, the chair, the lamp, the bookshelf in the corner. Which turns the living room from one loci into 5, and if you include floor, ceiling and 4 walls then you’ve got a dozen loci in a single room of your house.

In addition you can have as many of these loci journeys or memory palaces as you’d like. The loci system allows you to remember things in order, starting with the first locus and carrying on through your journey.

Another way to explain the loci system is to put a story in a locus using the story or link methods. This will increase the amount of information density you can store in a single place.

One of the disadvantages of the Loci system is it is difficult to jump to a certain section of the list which you’ve memorised. If you want to jump to the thing in place eleven you’ll probably end up starting in the first locus and counting until you get to 11.

The next method we’ll discuss works around that limitation. It is called the Peg system. The peg system can be traced back to Henry Herdson who developed it back in the 1600’s. The peg system uses objects to represent numbers and then hangs information on to these pegs.

The system uses rhyming to remember encode the numbers to the objects.











So if we link our previous examples: Doctor eating a giant bun, A car with shoes instead of wheels, a tree made from a candle, a rose growing out of a door, and little small soccer balls flying into a bee hive.

This allows us to jump straight to the number 4 door which has a rose growing out of it.

One of the drawbacks to the peg method is finding rhyming words for numbers above 10.

A method for learning numbers above 10 is the major system. The major system associated consonants with the numbers 0-9 and then you can build up words based on these building blocks.

0 is represented by S, Z or soft C

1 is t,d

2 is n

3 m

4 r

5 L

6 sh, ch, j, g, zh

7 k, hard c, hard g, hard ch, q, qu

8 fv

9 pb

after you have memorised this list you can then use it to build words for numbers. For example the number 123 might be represented by the word DeNiM (denim) because it contains D, N, M in the word and you know D=1 N=2 and M=3

Many people recommend generating fixed images / words to represent the numbers 0-100 so that you can use them quickly.

Another method is called the Dominic method and is similar to the Major system. This was invented by 8 times memory champion Dominic O’Brien. It is a PA (or person-action) system where you memorise the numbers 0-100 where each number is represented by a person and each person has an action. In the Dominic method the numbers 0-9 are represented by O,A,B,C,D,E,S,G,H,N. So the number 15 would be AE and this might Albert Einstein and he is writing E=MC2 on a blackboard.

I have used this system & a memory palace to memorise PI to about 50 decimal points. So the first few are:


For me this is 3 Pies at the front door (3. ), then Arthur Dent writing on a blackboard (1415), in the next room Napoleon Bonaparte is playing with a train-set (7265), and I could go on.

I have have recently been using this system and memory palaces to memorise a French dictionary. I’ve managed to memorise 7 pages with about 50 words per page so far. Which is about 350 words, with IPA pronunciation, spelling and translations.

For a lot of people these sorts of things are tricks, and you can’t use them to learn. But people have been using these tricks to remember everything from names of the great lakes to speeches for many hundreds of years. So they do work, but like anything you have to put some work into them.

If you’re interested in finding out more about these techniques and many others go to The Art of Memory forum. I’ll put a link in the show notes. You can download their free book and look at the various discussions they have about the pros and cons of each technique.

Well that is it for me this week, and next week we will cover study methods which aren’t using mnemonics but are still systems which you can learn and use methodically and intentionally to study your chosen topics.

Thanks for listening and as always if you have any feedback I would love to hear from you. You can email me at: rick@autodidactic.info.