Psychology of Mnemonics Research Paper

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Mnemonics are memory aids. They have a long history of use, but a short history of research. This research paper examines a few verbal and visual mnemonic techniques, and three more general mnemonic systems.

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1. Definition and History

The word mnemonic is derived from Mnemosyne, the name of the ancient Greek goddess of memory. It means ‘aiding the memory,’ and thus could refer generally to any method, technique, or system that improves memory. Typically, however, mnemonic refers more specifically to memory aids that most people consider to be rather unusual and or artificial. Mnemonics are sometimes referred to as memory ‘tricks,’ as if they were used in the place of ‘real’

memorizing. However, mnemonics do not replace the basic principles of learning and memory, but rather use the principles—such as meaningfulness, organization, association, and attention. One feature of most mnemonics is that they do not have a natural connection with the material to be learned; rather, they impose meaning or structure on material that is otherwise not inherently meaningful or organized. In fact, meaningless, unorganized, or unconnected material is the kind of material for which mnemonics have best shown their value; mnemonics are not needed for material that already has meaning or logical structure. A second feature of most mnemonics is that they involve adding something to the material being learned, and thus are sometimes referred to as ‘elaboration’; these elaborations create meaningful associations between what is to be learned and what is already known. A third feature of most mnemonics is that they focus attention on relevant aspects of the material to be learned, and they can also foster attention by the learner because they tend to be more interesting and more fun than rote learning.

The use of mnemonics is not new, dating back to at least 500 BC (see Yates 1966). However, although people have used mnemonics for at least 2,500 years, almost all of the experimental research on mnemonics has been conducted over less than 40 years. The topic was of considerable interest during the 1800s and very early 1900s, but then for about the next half a century there was virtually no research done on mnemonics. One likely reason was the influence of behaviorism, especially in American psychology—mental processes were not considered to be a very legitimate area for research, as most psychologists concentrated on observable behavior in order to be scientific. A revived research interest in mnemonics in the 1960s accompanied the general acceptability of cognitive processes as a legitimate area for research. A second possible reason why mnemonics might not have been viewed as a legitimate area for scientific inquiry for so many years is that they were (and sometimes still are) associated with sensationalism, showmanship, and commercialism. Researchers might have thought that research on mnemonics would yield little useful knowledge about memory, or thought that such ‘gimmicks’ were not worthy of serious scientific study.

Since the mid-1960s, there has been a large amount of research on mnemonics—enough to justify a book consisting of 20 review chapters by the mid-1980s (McDaniel and Pressley 1987), and for some recent cognitive psychology textbooks to devote increasing space to mnemonics (see, e.g., ‘Mnemonics and experts,’ Chap. 10 in Solso 1998). The experimental research has not produced many new mnemonics, but rather has focused mostly on variations of timehonored mnemonic systems, their effectiveness, and new applications for them. The research has found that mnemonics such as those described in this research paper have been used effectively by a wide range of people for a wide range of memory tasks.

2. Verbal and Visual Mnemonic Techniques

Mnemonics can be either verbal or visual. Verbal mnemonics use words to associate the items to be remembered, while visual-imagery mnemonics make the associations with mental pictures. For example, the words cats and rats could be associated either with a sentence such as ‘Cats like to chase rats’ or with a visual image of cats chasing rats.

2.1 Verbal Mnemonics

Examples of verbal mnemonics include such techniques as the first-letter mnemonic, the keyword mnemonic, rhymes and songs, and stories. Research has been done on all of these techniques, especially the first-letter mnemonic and the keyword mnemonic.

Acronyms and acrostics are often called first-letter mnemonics. An acronym is a word that is made from the first letters of the items to be remembered. For example, the word HOMES has been used to remember the names of the Great Lakes in the USA (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), and the fictional name ROY G. BIV to remember the names of the colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). An acrostic is a series of words, lines, or verses in which the first letters form a word or phrase. For example, an acrostic to remember the names of the Great Lakes is, ‘Healthy Old Men Exercise Some,’ and to remember the colors of the rainbow, ‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain.’

Concrete material is easier to remember than abstract material. Therefore, some abstract words can be remembered better by constructing meaningful concrete substitute words to represent the abstract words. This is the first step in the technique that is often called the keyword mnemonic. For example, an English speaker learning the Spanish word pato for the English word duck could use the sound-alike substitute word (keyword) pot to represent pato, or a person trying to remember the name Higbee could use the substitute term hug bee. The second step is for the learner to associate the substitute word with the English meaning (e.g., a duck wearing a pot on its head) or with the person (e.g., Mr. Higbee hugging a bee). This association is usually done using visual imagery, as described in the next section. The keyword mnemonic has been found to be effective in several kinds of paired-associate learning tasks in school, and in learning people’s names and foreign language vocabulary. (It has been used in Great Britain by Michael Gruneberg (1995) to develop extensive programs for learning several different languages.)

Rhymes and songs have been used effectively to impose meaning and structure in relating unrelated items. For example, some people remember which months are the short ones by the rhyme that begins, ‘Thirty days has September, April, June and November,’ and remember how to spell words with ‘ie’ in them by the rhyme that begins, ‘i before e, except after c.’ Many children have learned the letters of the alphabet by singing them in a song. An extensive set of mnemonics using rhymes and songs was developed and used through most of the 1900s by Masachika Nakane in Japan to teach children mathematics, sciences, and languages; Nakane’s mnemonics differ from most mnemonic techniques in that they help to teach processes and procedures for performing operations, rather than just facts (Higbee and Kunihira 1985).

Items to be remembered can also be tied together by incorporating them into stories. For example, to remember the names of the 13 original states of the United States, some schoolchildren have used a story that begins, ‘A lady from Delaware bought a ticket on the Pennsyl ania railroad. She packed a new jersey sweater in her suitcase, and went to visit her friend Georgia in Connecticut.’ The story mnemonic can be combined with substitute words, as in a story for remembering the names of the cranial nerves, which begins, ‘At the oil factory (olfactory) the optician (optic) looked for the occupant (oculomotor) of the truck (trochlear).’

2.2 Visual-imagery Mnemonics

Most mnemonic techniques and systems rely heavily on visual imagery, or mental pictures. Although there are various theories about why visual imagery can be such a powerful memory aid in learning verbal material, much research has found that it does help.

Some verbal mnemonics can also be represented as visual mnemonics by forming a visual image of the verbal association. Some of the examples in the previous section could be made even more effective for most people by picturing, for example, homes floating on the Great Lakes, or the lady from Delaware taking her trip. The keyword mnemonic is actually both a verbal and a visual mnemonic because, as noted previously, it usually incorporates visual imagery in its second step. All of the mnemonic systems in the next section also use visual imagery.

Three strategies that have been suggested to help make visual associations effective are interaction, vividness, and bizarreness: The learner should form an image of the associated items interacting with each other (not just sitting next to each other), should picture the image as clearly and vividly as possible, and should make the association bizarre or unusual.

All three of these strategies have received research support, with the support being stronger and more consistent for interaction and vividness than for bizarreness.

3. Mnemonic Systems

There are at least three differences that might make it useful to distinguish between mnemonic techniques, like those in the previous section, and mnemonic systems. First, techniques are usually single-purpose mnemonics used for remembering specific facts, whereas the mnemonic systems described in this section are more general-purpose mnemonics that can be used repeatedly to remember different sets of material. A second difference between techniques and systems is that for most techniques the material to be remembered also serves as part of the mnemonic to cue memory for other parts of the material, whereas mnemonic systems involve building a mental file of previously-memorized cues that exist independently of the material to be remembered. A third difference is that techniques are more likely to be discovered and used spontaneously by the learner, whereas systems are less likely to be self-generated, and are more likely to require instruction and practice.

Three of the most widely used and studied mnemonic systems are the loci system, the peg system, and the phonetic system. The loci and peg systems have received a large amount of research interest and support, but less research has been done on the phonetic system because of its complexity.

3.1 Loci System

The loci system is the most ancient mnemonic system, dating back to about 500 BC, when it was used by Greek orators to remember long speeches without notes. It was the mnemonic system until about the middle of the seventeenth century, when other systems began to evolve.

The word loci is the plural of locus, which means ‘place or location.’ The loci system consists of two steps. The first step is to thoroughly memorize a series of visual images of familiar locations in some natural or logical order. The locations could be rooms in a house or other familiar building, a series of buildings or other sites on a familiar walk, or even a familiar golf course; some versions have even used parts of the body or parts of an automobile. This series of locations is the mental filing system, which can be used over again for different lists of items. The second step is to associate a visual image of each item to be remembered (substitute words can be used for abstract items) with a location in the series; this is done by placing the items visually, in the order they are to be remembered, one in each location as the learner takes an imaginary walk past the locations. For retrieval, the learner takes a mental trip through the locations and retrieves the item that is associated with each location in order.

3.2 Peg System

Direct retrieval of an item at a certain position in a memorized list (for example, the eighth item) is difficult with the loci system, because it is dependent on sequential retrieval—finding the eighth item requires proceeding in order through the mental locations until the eighth location is reached. The peg system consists of a series of prememorized concrete nouns (pegwords) that correspond meaningfully with numbers. Thus, to retrieve the eighth item directly, the learner would just think of the pegword that represents the number 8 and see what item was associated with it.

The peg system can be traced to the mid-1600s, when Henry Herdson developed an extension of the loci system. Herdson dispensed with the spatial locations of the objects and merely used the objects themselves. Each digit was represented by any one of several objects that look like the numbers (e.g., 1 candle, 8 spectacles). A system that used rhyming words to represent the numbers was introduced in England in the late 1800s. The nouns rhymed with the numbers they represented so that it was easy to remember what noun represents each number. This is the basis of a current widely-used version of the peg system in which numbers are represented by rhyming pegwords (one bun, two shoe, three tree, etc.). In addition to look-alikes or rhymes, pegwords have also been selected on the basis of a related meaning (one penny, two twins, three tricycle, etc.).

The peg system gets its name from the fact that the pegwords serve as mental pegs or hooks on which the person ‘hangs’ the items to be remembered. The pegwords are used in the same manner that locations are used in the loci system. The learner associates a visual image of each new item with the image of each pegword in order, and retrieves the items by counting through the pegwords.

3.3 Phonetic System

The phonetic system is the most sophisticated and most versatile of the three mnemonic systems, and is the one used most frequently by professional mnemonists and other performers to perform amazing memory feats (cf. Wilding and Valentine 1997). It is also the most complex system, and thus requires the most study and effort to master. However, the phonetic system overcomes a limitation of the peg system by allowing for construction of more than 10 to 20 pegwords (for example, it can be difficult to find words that rhyme with, or look like, 27 or 31), while retaining the peg system’s advantage of direct retrieval.

The phonetic system has also been referred to by such terms as figure-alphabet, digit-letter, numberalphabet, hook, number-consonant, and number-tosound. Its origin has been traced back to 1648, when Winckelman (spelled differently in some sources) introduced a digit-letter system in which the digits were represented by letters of the alphabet. These letters were then used to form words to represent a given number sequence. In early versions of the system the digits were represented by both consonants and vowels, and the letters representing each digit were selected arbitrarily. In subsequent refinements of the system, the digits were represented by consonants only, and the consonants representing each digit were not selected arbitrarily but were selected on the basis of some relationship with the digits they represented (for example 1 = t, which has one downstroke). By the end of the nineteenth century the system had evolved into its present form—the digits were represented not by consonants themselves but by consonant sounds (which is why it is referred to here as the ‘phonetic’ system).

In the phonetic system, each digit from 0 to 9 is represented by a consonant sound or family of similar sounds (for example, 1 = t or d, 2 = n, 3 = m). These consonant sounds are then combined with vowels— which have no numerical value—to code numbers into keywords that represent the numbers (for example, 1 = tie or doe, 2 = no or inn, 12 = tin or dine, 31 = mat or maid). These keywords are memorized, and used as a mental filing system in the same manner that is described above for the peg system’s pegwords.

In addition to its use as a mental filing system similar to the loci system and peg system, the phonetic system can also be used to remember numbers by converting them to words (which are more meaningful than numbers for most people). For example, the number 321 could be coded as minute or my net, and the number 2131 could be coded as not mad or as the acrostic ‘ne er take more drugs.’

This research paper has provided a comprehensive, but not exhaustive, overview of verbal as well as visual mnemonics, and of mnemonic techniques as well as mnemonic systems. Interest in mnemonics is likely to continue for researchers trying to understand memory better and especially for learners trying to remember better.


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