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Are you forgetting something? How memory aids can help

Whether you were aware of it or not, you have most likely employed mnemonics at some point in your life. You may have used them to memorise the entire periodic table, or perhaps simply to remind yourself to pick up that carton of milk after work. These incredibly handy memory aids help us strengthen information in our brain by linking it to more easily retrievable memory cues.

These memory cues can then be drawn upon at a later time, perhaps mid-way through that crucial end of year university or high school exam.

There are countless different memory aids out there, and the ways in which they can be used is vast, varied, and to be honest, quite complicated. Dr Stefanie Sharman, Senior Lecturer for the School of Psychology at Deakin University, decodes how they work.

Why are memory aids so helpful for memorising things?

‘In general, mnemonics are helpful because they provide a way of organising to-be-remembered information. For example, it is helpful to use the acronym ROY G BIV to remember the order of colours in a rainbow [red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet]. Here, the first letters of each of the colour words are linked in a pronounceable way (a man’s name).’

What’s the science behind how and why they work?

‘Basically, organisation improves memory. When we force organisation on information that we want to remember, such as through the use of mnemonics, it helps us to retrieve this information later. Essentially, the organisation provides us with more memory connections and retrieval cues to access the information.’

'In general, mnemonics are helpful because they provide a way of organising to-be-remembered information.'

Dr Stefanie Sharman,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Are more complicated mnemonics more memorable than simple ones?

‘For any mnemonics that rely on visual imagery, the more unusual you make the images, the more likely you are to remember them. For instance in the peg-word method, numbers are linked to rhyming words (e.g. one = bun, two = shoe, three = tree…) these need to be associated with the to-be-remembered information.

‘If this were a shopping list, for example, then you could “hang” each item on the list on one of the “pegs”. If the first item is milk, than you need to visualise milk and a bun together. Here, the more unusual you can make your image, the more likely you are to remember it. So instead of imagining a bun on a plate next to a glass of milk, you could imagine a bun drinking a glass of milk.’

Do memory aids create short-term or long-term memory paths?

‘Mnemonics are designed to transfer or encode information into long-term memory. Working memory (which is our short-term storage system) only lasts for about 30 seconds (and only while we are actively rehearsing the information that it contains, such as by repeating the information over and over to ourselves). In order to transfer the information from short-term memory to long-term memory, we need to encode it more elaborately, which can be achieved through the use of mnemonics.

‘In some situations, mnemonics can form very long lasting memories. In other situations, if we only need to remember a list of items at the shops, we will store this in long-term memory, but the information will decay over time (until we can no longer retrieve it) as we no longer need it.’

What are some examples of commonly used memory aids?

  • The peg-word method: the peg-word method provides an external ‘skeleton’ for the to-be-remembered information – the peg words act as a structure to help you remember particular items.
  • The method of loci: in this method, you need to visualise a well-known place (such as your house) and imagine a journey through it. As you visit a number of different locations on this journey, each location should be associated with a to-be-remembered item.
  • Acronyms and acrostics: an acronym is a pronounceable word made out of the first letters of the name of something. An acrostic is a form of writing in which the first letter, syllable or word of each line, spells out a word or message.
  • Keyword devices: this is about creating an association between the to-be-remembered information and a familiar word for example, to remember a fact, like Canberra is the capital of Australia, you could visualise a can on top of the outline of Australia. The can is the keyword here.
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Dr Stefanie Sharman
Dr Stefanie Sharman

Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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