Many years ago, as a student, I was taught to remember the colors of the rainbow using the statement “Richard Of York Gain Battle In Vain” where the starting letter of each word represents a color. In other words, R, O, Y, G, B, I, V represent the colors Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.
I later learned that this is what is known as a first-letter mnemonic. Another example of a first-letter mnemonic is HOMES which is used by geography students to remember the five Great Lakes of North America: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.
Read on and find out what are mnemonics and how they can be used to improve memory.
What are Mnemonics?
Mnemonics are a type of remembering strategy, especially when long-term memory is involved.
According to psychologist Mark Ashcraft, mnemonics force you to learn the material thoroughly, provide a memorable and lasting record in long-term memory, and facilitate retrieval by providing necessary cues (Ashcraft).
There is a vast array of experimental evidence supporting the beneficial effects of mnemonics on memory.
Mnemonics do not have to be visual, but a great deal of work has been done concerning the relationship between the visual components of the mnemonics and the visual quality of the mnemonics.
Let’s look into this relationship.
Using images that interact
One interesting line of research investigates the effect of the bizarreness and interaction of the imagery used on recall.
In 1972, a team of psychologists conducted a study varying the factors of bizarreness and interaction (Wollen, et al.). In this study, subjects learned a series of word pairs such as ‘cigar’ and ‘piano’. From this pair of words, there were four “combinations” of images based on their bizarreness and interaction:
1. In the bizarre/non-interaction condition, the images presented showed a piano with the keys coming off and a cigar that was burning at both ends. However, the two bizarre images were printed on separate pages and did not interact with one another.
2. In the bizarre/interaction condition, the piano was smoking a cigar.
3. In the interaction/non-bizarre condition, the cigar was placed on the piano.
4. In the non-interaction/non-bizarre condition, both items were shown in their normal states, with no interaction.
The study results showed that subjects recalled more pairs that were in interaction, regardless of whether or not the images were bizarre.
Using bizarre images
On the other hand, there are also studies showing that bizarreness plays a role in recall (Matlin).
For example, researchers in another study found that when subjects were asked to recall the images immediately, there was no superior recall for bizarre images. However, when subjects were told to recall the images at a later time, there was a superior recall for bizarre images (O’Brien).
The issues of bizarreness and interaction in visual mnemonics are promising areas for research. However, you do not have to wait for science to sort out all of the variables and relationships involved.
Mnemonics, as author Tony Buzan underlined in his book and the research confirms, are an extremely beneficial tool to use during material encoding and rehearsal (Buzan).
Furthermore, research has indicated that imagining objects interacting makes them more likely to be remembered than non-interacting objects.
Using self-created images
Another interesting study compared the effects of learning using self-created images, presented by the experimenters, and using no images.
In this study, researchers asked fifth-grade students to learn words such as brain, magazine, trouble, and truth (Bull & Wittrock). The students were then spilt into 3 groups:
1. The children in Group 1 read the word and its definition, wrote them, and then created their own images of the word and the definition.
2. The children in Group 2 performed the same task as those in Group 1, with the exception that they traced a given picture rather than creating their own.
3. The children in Group 3 wrote the word and its definition over and over again.
When the children were tested for recall a week later, the children in Group 1, who created their own images, had the best performance, while the children in Group 3, who did no drawing, had the worst performance.
In this area, Tony Buzan repeatedly stresses the importance of creating your own images, either by copying and embellishing, or creating them from scratch. The above study strongly supports Buzan’s point: When children created their own images, their recall was the best.
Chunking information is another mnemonic that is often used.
While our short-term memory appears to be limited to approximately seven chunks of information, there is a wide variety of ways we can chunk this information. For example, a 7-digit phone number may take up all of the capacity of short-term memory. However, if the phone number is chunked in some meaningful way, much more information can be simultaneously stored.
In the early 1980s, psychologists William Chase and Anders Ericsson conducted an experiment to investigate the ability of people to remember strings of digits.
They found one subject to be extremely interesting. At the start of the study, he could remember 7 digits. However, after more than 2 years of practice, he could remember 82 digits. His strategy was to chunk digits that matched information he already had in long-term memory (Chase & Ericsson).
The above research shows the importance of relating information to already stored information. This may be very useful during presentations and meetings.
If you want people to remember a lot of information, you must organize it into meaningful units or preferably, have each person organize it into his or her own meaningful units. This will improve retention and memory by increasing the associations between words and concepts. This process of association and organization is extensively used in the Mind Mapping technique.
Using mnemonics for better recall
Mnemonics have been studied and used successfully for many years. While there may be limitations, such as the context effect discussed above, the benefits appear to outweigh the possible drawbacks.
Two important points regarding the use of mnemonics that both the literature and Buzan emphasize are:
1. Create images that interact, since this will strengthen the associations, and
2. Create your own images, as this will lead to a greater depth of encoding, resulting in better recall.
For further information about memory improvement and mnemonics, read Ulric Neisser’s Memory Observed and Aleksandr Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist.
For other types of Mnemonics, check out this Practical Psychology YouTube video.
- Ashcraft, M. H. Human Memory and Cognition. Scott, Foresman and Company, Glenview, Ill; 1989.
- Bull, B. & Wittrock, M. “Imagery in the Learning of Verbal Definitions.” British Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 43, no. 3, 1973, pp. 289-293.
- Buzan, T. The Memory Book: How to Remember Anything You Want. Pearson Education Ltd, 2009.
- Chase, W. G. & Ericsson, K. “Skill and Working Memory.” Psychology of Learning and Motivation, vol. 16, 1982, pp. 1-58.
- Glass AL, Holyoak KJ. Cognition. Random House, New York; 1986.
- Luria, A. The Mind of a Mnemonist. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1968.
- Matlin, M. W. Cognition. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc, New York; 1989.
- Neisser, U. Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts. W. H. Freeman & Company, San Francisco; 1982.
- O’Brien, E. J., & Wolford, C. R. “Effect of Delay in Testing on Retention of Plausible Versus Bizarre Mental Images. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, vol. 8, no. 2, 1982, pp. 148–152.