Elaborative encoding

mnemonic [ni-mon-ik] (the first ‘m’ is not pronounced) device, or memory device, is any learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval (remembering) in the human memory.

Mnemonics make use of elaborative encoding (connecting concepts you want to remember to preexisting knowledge visually, spatially, semantically or acoustically) and other retrieval cues as tools to encode any given information in a way that allows for efficient storage and retrieval. Mnemonics aid original information in becoming associated with something more accessible or meaningful—which, in turn, provides better retention of the information.

Commonly encountered mnemonics are often used for lists and in auditory form, such as short poems, acronyms, initialisms, or memorable phrases, but mnemonics can also be used for other types of information and in visual or kinesthetic forms. Their use is based on the observation that the human mind more easily remembers spatial, personal, surprising, physical, sexual, humorous, or otherwise ‘relatable’ information, rather than more abstract or impersonal forms of information.

The word ‘mnemonic’ is derived from the Ancient Greek word ‘mnēmonikos,’ meaning ‘of memory, or relating to memory’ and is related to Mnemosyne (‘remembrance’), the name of the goddess of memory in Greek mythology. Mnemonics in antiquity were most often considered in the context of what is today known as the art of memory (a number of loosely associated mnemonic principles and techniques used to organize memory impressions, improve recall, and assist in the combination and ‘invention’ of ideas).

Ancient Greeks and Romans distinguished between two types of memory: the ‘natural’ memory and the ‘artificial’ memory. The former is inborn, and is the one that everyone uses instinctively. The latter in contrast has to be trained and developed through the learning and practice of a variety of mnemonic techniques. Mnemonic devices were much cultivated by Greek sophists and philosophers and are frequently referred to by Plato and Aristotle.

The Greek and the Roman system of mnemonics was founded on the use of mental places and signs or pictures, known as ‘topical’ mnemonics. The most usual method was to choose a large house, of which the apartments, walls, windows, statues, furniture, etc., were each associated with certain names, phrases, events or ideas, by means of symbolic pictures. To recall these, an individual had only to search over the apartments of the house until discovering the places where images had been placed by the imagination.

To fix a historic date in memory, in the Roman system, it was localized in an imaginary town divided into a certain number of districts, each with ten houses, each house with ten rooms, and each room with a hundred quadrates or memory-places, partly on the floor, partly on the four walls, partly on the ceiling. Therefore, if it were desired to fix in the memory the date of the invention of printing (1436), an imaginary book would be placed in the thirty-sixth quadrate or memory-place of the fourth room of the first house of the historic district of the town.

The first important modification of the method of the Romans was invented by German poet Konrad Celtes in 1492; he used letters of the alphabet for associations, rather than places. Italian jurist Peter of Ravenna provoked such astonishment in Italy by his mnemonic feats that he was believed by many to be a necromancer. His ‘Phoenix artis memoriae’ went through as many as nine editions, the seventh being published at Cologne in 1608.

At the end of the 16th century, Lambert Schenkel, who taught mnemonics in France, Italy and Germany, was denounced as a sorcerer by the University of Louvain, though the university would eventually withdraw its accusation and publish Schenkel’s research.

In 1648, German Historian Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein revealed what he called the ‘most fertile secret’ in mnemonics — using consonants for figures, thus expressing numbers by words (vowels being added as required), in order to create associations more readily remembered. The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz adopted an alphabet very similar to that of Wennsshein for his scheme of a form of writing common to all languages.

Wennsshein’s method was adopted with slight changes afterward by the majority of subsequent ‘original’ systems. It was modified and supplemented by Richard Grey (1694-1771), a priest who published ‘a Memoria technica’ in 1730: ‘To remember anything in history, chronology, geography, etc., a word is formed, the beginning whereof, being the first syllable or syllables of the thing sought, does, by frequent repetition, of course draw after it the latter part, which is so contrived as to give the answer. Thus, in history, the Deluge happened in the year before Christ two thousand three hundred forty-eight; this is signified by the word Del-etok, Del standing for Deluge and etok for 2348.’

His method is comparable to the Hebrew system by which letters also stand for numerals, and therefore words for dates. To assist in retaining the mnemonical words in the memory, they were formed into memorial lines. Such strange words in difficult hexameter scansion, are by no means easy to memorize. The vowel or consonant, which Grey connected with a particular figure, was chosen arbitrarily.

A later modification was made in 1806 by Gregor von Feinaigle, a German monk from Salem near Constance. While living and working in Paris, he expounded a system of mnemonics in which (as in Wennsshein) the numerical figures are represented by letters chosen due to some similarity to the figure or an accidental connection with it. This alphabet was supplemented by a complicated system of localities and signs. Feinaigle, who apparently did not publish any written documentation of this method, traveled to England in 1811. The following year one of his pupils published ‘The New Art of Memory,’ explaining Feinaigle’s system. In addition, it contains valuable historical material about previous systems.

Other mnemonists later published simplified forms, as the more complicated menemonics were generally abandoned. Methods founded chiefly on the so-called ‘laws of association,’ a system attributed to Aristotle. In Aristotelian psychology all impressions are stored in the ‘seat of perception,’ linked by the laws of similarity, contrast, and contiguity. In the seventeenth century, British philosopher John Locke expanded on the model.

Songs and jingles can be used as a mnemonic. A common example is how children remember the alphabet by singing the ABCs. Acronyms are a form of mnemonic; the first letter of each word is combined into a new word. For example: ROY G BIV for the colors of the rainbow or HOMES for Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior. In expression or word mnemonics, the first letter of each word is combined to form a phrase or sentence (e.g. ‘Richard of York gave battle in vain’ for the colors of the rainbow). In model mnemonics, a model is used to help recall information (e.g. diagrams, cycles, graphs, and flowcharts to help understand or memorize an idea).

Note organization mnemonics involve the use of flash cards and lists. Flash cards are used by putting a question or word on one side of a paper and the answer or definition on the other side of the paper. Lists involve the organization of data from broad to detailed (e.g. Earth>Continent>Country). In image mnemonics information is constructed into a picture (e.g. the German weak inflection can be remembered as five ‘-e’s,’ looking rather like the state of Oklahoma in America, in a sea of ‘-en’s’). ‘I before e except after c or when sounding like a in neighbor and weigh,’ is a famous example of a spelling mnemonic. Visualization mnemonics are techniques such as the method of loci that allow the user to create unique associations in an imagined space.

A wide range of mnemonics are used for several purposes. The most commonly used mnemonics are those for lists, numerical sequences, foreign-language acquisition, and medical treatment for patients with memory deficits. A common mnemonic for remembering lists is to create an easily remembered acronym, or, taking each of the initial letters of the list members, create a memorable phrase in which the words with the same acronym as the material. Mnemonic techniques can be applied to most memorization of novel materials. Fopr example: ‘Memory Needs Every Method Of Nurturing Its Capacity’ is a mnemonic for spelling ‘mnemonic.’ To memorize the metric prefixes after Giga(byte), remember: ‘Tangiest PEZ? Yellow!’ or ‘TPEZY,’ Tera, Peta, Exa, Zetta, Yotta(byte). The order of sharps in key signature notation is F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, A♯, E♯ and B♯, giving the mnemonic ‘Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle.’ The order of flats is the reverse: B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, C♭ and F♭ (‘Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’ Father’).

To memorize chemical reactions, such as redox reactions, where it is common to mix up oxidation and reduction, the short phrase ‘LEO (Lose Electron Oxidation) the lion says GER (Gain Electron Reduction)’ or ‘Oil Rig’ can be used, the latter being an acronym for ‘Oxidation is losing, Reduction is gaining.’ John ‘Doc’ Walters, professor of chemistry and physics in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1950s and 1960s, taught his students to use for this purpose the acronym ‘RACOLA’: ‘Reduction is Addition of electrons and occurs at the Cathode; Oxidation is Loss of electrons and occurs at the Anode.’ To memorize the names of the planets and Pluto, use the planetary mnemonic: ‘My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos’ (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune).

For numerical sequences and mathematical operations, mnemonic phrases or poems can be used to encode numeric sequences by various methods, one common one is to create a new phrase in which the number of letters in each word represents the according digit of pi. For example, the first 15 digits of the mathematical constant pi (3.14159265358979) can be encoded as ‘Now I need a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics’; ‘Now,’ having 3 letters, represents the first number, 3. ‘Piphilology’ is the practice dedicated to creating mnemonics for pi.

Mnemonics may be helpful in learning foreign languages, for example by transposing difficult foreign words with words in a language the learner knows already, also called ‘cognates’ which are very common in the Spanish language. A useful such technique is to find linkwords, words that have the same pronunciation in a known language as the target word, and associate them visually or auditorially with the target word. For example, in trying to assist the learner to remember ‘ohel,’ the Hebrew word for ‘tent,’ linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann proposes the memorable sentence ‘Oh hell, there’s a raccoon in my tent.’ The memorable sentence ‘There’s a fork in Ma’s leg’ helps the learner remember that the Hebrew word for fork is ‘mazleg.’ Similarly, to remember the Hebrew word ‘bayit,’ meaning ‘house,’ one can use the sentence ‘that’s a lovely house, I’d like to buy it.’

The linguist Michel Thomas taught students to remember that ‘estar’ is the Spanish word for ‘to be’ by using the phrase ‘to be a star.’ Another Spanish example is by using the mnemonic ‘Vin Diesel Has Ten Weapons’ to teach irregular command verbs in the you(tú) form. Spanish verb forms and tenses are regularly seen as the hardest part of learning the language. With a high number of verb tenses, and many verb forms that are not found in English, Spanish verbs can be hard to remember and then conjugate. A particularly hard verb tense to remember is command verbs. Command verbs in Spanish are conjugated differently depending on who the command is being given to. The phrase, when pronounced with a Spanish accent, is used to remember ‘Ven Di Sal Haz Ten Ve Pon Sé,’ all of the irregular Spanish command verbs in the you(tú) form. This mnemonic helps students attempting to memorize different verb tenses.

Another technique is for learners of gendered languages to associate their mental images of words with a color that matches the gender in the target language. An example here is to remember the Spanish word for ‘foot,’ pie, [pee-ay] with the image of a foot stepping on a pie, which then spills blue filling (blue representing the male gender of the noun in this example).

Mnemonics can be used in aiding patients with memory deficits, such as those caused by head injuries, strokes, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and other neurological conditions. A study testing six different memory strategies including a mnemonics technique concluded that there were improvements on recall. However, in the case of stroke patients, the results did not reach statistical significance. Academic study of the use of mnemonics has also shown their effectiveness. In one experiment, subjects of different ages who applied mnemonic techniques to learn novel vocabulary outperformed control groups that applied contextual learning and free-learning styles.

Mnemonics vary in effectiveness for several groups ranging from young children to the elderly. Mnemonic learning strategies require time and resources by educators to develop creative and effective devices. The most simple and creative mnemonic devices usually are the most effective for teaching. In the classroom, mnemonic devices must be used at the appropriate time in the instructional sequence to achieve their maximum effectiveness.

Mnemonics were seen to be more effective for groups of people who struggled with or had weak long-term memory, like the elderly. In humans, the process of aging particularly affects the medial temporal lobe and hippocampus, in which the episodic memory is synthesized. The episodic memory stores information about items, objects, or features with spatiotemporal contexts.

Studies (notably ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two’) have suggested that the short-term memory of adult humans can hold only a limited number of items; grouping items into larger chunks such as in a mnemonic might be part of what permits the retention of a larger total amount of information in short-term memory, which in turn can aid in the creation of long-term memories.

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