The Art of Good Mnemonics
My strange obsession with memorizing things and teaching kids how to learn.
I’m a memorizer.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved memorizing things. It made me a strange kid, that’s for sure. I think it triggers the same types of things in my brain that video games trigger in other people.
There’s something about memorizing that makes me feel accomplished, like I’ve leveled up. It was my favorite part of school. States in alphabetical order? Check. Next. Countries in Africa? Check. Next.
As other kids languished under the weight of the material, I started branching out on my own: words in Elvish from the Lord of the Rings, Latin names for trees, the amino acids together with their chemical structures.
These were things a high school student had no reason to know. I didn’t even understand what the chemical structures meant. I just made the squiggles with the letters and called it a day when I had them all down.
Thousands of flashcards littered my house. I assume my parents thought they were for my classes. I never told them what I was really up to.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of research on memory. Much of what I’m about to tell you is anecdotal stuff that has worked for me, but much of it is also supported by science.
Since memory is such an important part of education, I think we should actually teach the art of good mnemonics to students as early as possible. I’ll have further recommendations as we get to them.
The Art of Good Mnemonics
Mnemonics are hands down the best way to memorize something.
I know that sounds dumb because it’s kind of part of the definition of the word, but I know a lot of smart people who got A’s in hard university classes without ever developing a system of mnemonics.
The brain is bad at recalling random stuff, especially verbal or numerical things, yet there are national and international memory competitions every year where people do things like memorize the order of a deck of cards very quickly (under a minute).
Some of these people might be naturally gifted, but many just use efficient mnemonics. You can learn to do this yourself.
The brain is actually very good at remembering visual information and stories. The weirder it is the better it will be. I won’t go into detail on the card technique, but I do want to get into what makes good and bad mnemonics in something like memorizing vocabulary in a foreign language.
Here are the key things to remember:
- The to learn word should immediately trigger a keyword.
- That keyword should produce a clear picture in your mind.
- The picture should be funny, strange, or outlandish.
- The picture is has a story attached.
- The story ends with what you’re trying to recall.
What not to do.
I want to start with a way to sabotage yourself without realizing why. I’ve been learning Japanese for some time, and it took me a while to understand why certain common mnemonics failed.
It was the last thing on that list. I could trigger the mnemonic perfectly. I could say the story from the picture, but because the word I was trying to recall happened in the middle of the story, and so I couldn’t figure out what it was.
Part of the art of good mnemonics is to arrange everything to lead to what you want to remember. The triggered keyword doesn’t have to be remembered, and then each thing leads to the next in a way you can’t help culminating in what you want to remember.
Organizing in any other way will lead to you having to memorize something extra. In Japanese, there is a great site called “kanjidamage” that breaks down all the characters into parts and makes them into stories.
For example, 始 is the character for “begin.” The left part is “woman” and the right part is the counter for “large things.” Their mnemonic is: I’ve just begun to date a car-sized woman, and she is amazing.
This mnemonic is terrible! It requires you to know the keyword “begin” to start the story, and that’s the very thing the story is trying to get you to remember!
(Yes, I know they’ve phrased it like this for the pronunciation “she,” so don’t comment about that).
Example from Finnish
I want to make an example on the spot here to show you how I’d do it. I know absolutely nothing about Finnish, so I can’t rely on some previous exposure for help.
From a list of the most common words, here’s one: huono means bad. If we go Finnish to English, the flashcard will say huono.
We need a trigger word. Huono → Who? Oh, no!
The trigger “Who? Oh, no!” should conjure up an image. The image is of a big grim reaper figure and a kid saying the phrase “Who? Oh, no!” It’s a big, bad person coming for the kid.
We got it. When we go the other direction, we can use the same image but run the logic backward. Bad triggers the image and then we end with the kid saying “Who? Oh, no!”
It’s important to note that mnemonics are not always reversible like that. It’s possible that “bad” isn’t a very good trigger for that image, and we might need something more personal to get to the image to produce the story.
I think it works here, though. Good luck ever forgetting that now. That mnemonic is so strong, you’ll probably still remember the Finnish word for bad next week.
You might think I cheated — that I picked something easy. I assure you, it’s always this easy once you get the hang of it.
This is why I think this is a skill that should be explicitly taught in early education.
SRS Flashcards for Long-Term Recall
The above method is super helpful for short-term memory. It’s why people who memorize decks of cards for competitions use something similar. But if you ask those people a week later to recall it, they probably won’t be able to.
Long-term memory is formed by doing the above over and over again just as you’re about to forget it.
This brings us to a method called SRS or spaced repetition (systems). Your brain is always forgetting things. In theory, you’d forget your own name if you never heard anyone use it in the next 100 years.
Spaced repetition has been scientifically studied since the ’30s, but it didn’t really gain a lot of popularity until the ’70s. The most effective language learning programs, like Pimsleur, use it.
Here’s the overview: If you do your flashcards 20 times in a row, the last 18 times do pretty much nothing and waste your time.
It’s far better to go through them once and then wait a day. Now you’ve had time to forget. Do them once again. It should be easier, and the recall puts them into longer-term memory.
Now do them again in a few more day’s time.
Notice, you’ve only done the flashcards 3 times, but because you’ve spaced the repetitions out with enough time to start to forget, they are much more effective at putting that information into long-term memory.
You’ve spent 1/10 the time and have gotten 100 times more benefit.
I know what you’re thinking: do I just make up these spaces? Like, how often am I supposed to review?
This has all been studied in depth. Different “systems” use different algorithms, but they are about the same. There are tons of apps out there for automatically implementing SRS flashcards so you don’t have to know the underlying algorithm.
The most famous right now that you can use for free is Anki.
Anki’s algorithm works great if you just check for “reviews” once a day. It’s not as scary as it sounds. Sometimes you’ll have several days in a row with no reviews (if you’re not constantly adding new cards).
Remember, it will only make you review a card if you’re right at the scientifically-studied point of forgetting.
So, it wants you to take days or even weeks away from them, even if you’re checking in every single day.
This brings me to a great failing of our education system. Why does no one teach us about this? Every kid has a way to access Anki (or whatever system/app a school wants to adopt).
They could be carrying around a highly-optimized system for learning. There are even apps, like Memrise, with experience points and levels to make it more like a game if we think that’s a good incentive.
Even if a student only popped open the app on the bus ride to and from school to kill time or get the high score in the class, that would probably be a far more efficient study regimen than whatever wishy-washy, unfocused thing they do for hours at home.
This, together with actually helping students make their own powerful mnemonics, would greatly improve the learning and memory of our middle school and high school students.