Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily
Whether you’re cramming for a test or just trying to remember your to-do list, you can use mnemonic devices to ease the strain on your brain while simultaneously enhancing your memory. Dr. Restak explains the history of mnemonics and provides specific techniques.
History of Mnemonics
The inventor of mnemonics, which is the art and science of memory, is reputed to be the Greek poet Simonides, who lived between c. 556–468 BCE. The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero describes Simonides’ method in his account of a banquet in the house of a man named Scopas.
Simonides was hired to write and recite a poem praising Scopas, but only half of the poem praised Scopas. The other half was devoted to the divine twins Castor and Pollux.
Scopas became angry and wanted to pay only half of the fee, so they negotiated. A message was delivered to the hall that two men outside wished to speak with Simonides.
Those two men were Castor and Pollux, who had come to pay Simonides in a special way for his speech praising them. Within seconds, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed, killing everyone inside. Simonides used his remarkable memory to identify each of the mangled bodies by what came to be called the method of place.
Simonides pictured in his mind where each guest had been seated. In this way, he identified each of the bodies. This is Cicero’s explanation of what Simonides had done:
He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it.
Simonides’ mnemonic art was based on two simple concepts: places and images. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian, who lived between 35–96 CE, redefined this concept by describing an “architectural technique” for imprinting the memories within a large building.
Here is how it works: You physically walk through the building’s numerous rooms and remember all of the ornaments and furnishings that you encounter. Convert each idea to be remembered into an image. Then mentally walk through the building and deposit each of these images in the order of the ornaments and furnishings you have previously memorized.
“This method still works today and is used by memory virtuosos who perform seemingly impossible feats of memory,” Dr. Restak said.
Mnemonic Principles and Techniques
All mnemonic techniques are based on a few principles, the first of which is paying attention to what you’re trying to memorize. Second, search for meaning in the information; this meaning will vary according to circumstance and your own background.
Use as many sensory faculties as possible—seeing it, hearing it, and touching it. You can put information in the form of an image.
The clearer and more distinct the image, the more likely you will be to remember it. You can also create a system of memory pegs—a one-to-one system that matches memorized items with concrete objects—based on your life experience.
Here are some additional suggestions from Mark Gluck, a memory researcher at Rutgers University who has written a textbook on memory. He says to create associations.
Gluck gives us an example of Ag, which is the symbol for silver in the periodic table. Ag comes from Latin argentum, which means silver. Argentina was named “Argentina” because it was thought to be filled with silver, but not that much has been found there.
Another method of association is practice and drill, which you might have done as a child with states, planets, and multiplication tables. Additionally, reading the information aloud can be helpful.
To further tap into your auditory strengths, you can use rhymes or songs to help you memorize facts. Schoolhouse Rock! is an educational series that uses songs to teach children about grammar, economics, and mathematics.
You can also engage the other senses. For example, if you are trying to remember what a particular rock looks like, holding it in your hand can help you to memorize the shape and texture.
Another effective mnemonic technique is mental time-travel—remembering the circumstances of when and where you learned something. You might recall, for example, learning the definition of onomatopoeia during an episode of Sesame Street.
Maintaining Brain Health
Aside from mnemonic techniques, you want to keep your brain healthy and fully functioning so that it can perform at its full capacity. Try to reduce memory overload. You can use Post-it® notes for routine items, such as a grocery list, to free your mind to focus on memorizing other, more important items.
Additionally, getting adequate sleep restores and recharges your brain so that you feel alert throughout the day. During the day, you also want to give your brain breaks, taking time to relax and unwind.
Dr. Restak recommends that you do not force memorization. Distract yourself and let your brain operate at its own pace.
Many famous inventors have reported getting their biggest breakthroughs while showering, taking walks, or even dreaming. Because mnemonic devices ease the strain that the task of memorization places on your brain, it too can be viewed as a form of rest for your brain.