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What Is a Mnemonic Device?

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 06 Nov 2023

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Before anything — why does mnemonic sound like pneumonia and neither of them starts with the letter N? Gnarly gnawing gnostic knick-knack knock pterodactyl.

Anyway. Besides being impossible to spell, mnemonic devices are the ultimate memory hack. In the simplest definition, a mnemonic is a trick that helps you remember something. It’s not quite the same as an acronym — although acronyms can be mnemonic. Often, mnemonics are initialisms, like how PEMDAS is the order of operations in math or DNA is much easier to say and remember than deoxyribonucleic acid. Sometimes it’s a clever sentence like every good boy does fine to remember the notes on the lines of the treble clef staff. (I learned every good boy deserves fudge.)

But it’s weird, right? Why is a random sentence about giving boys fudge easier to remember than EGBDF? If we can remember DNA, why can’t we remember a different string of letters? Understanding why mnemonics work helps us rely on them in other contexts, not just school lessons. You can invent your own mind trick to ensure you won’t forget something.

Using Mnemonic Devices

Why Do Mnemonic Devices Work?

It’s all about long-term memory. Very basically, your gray matter does not have unlimited storage space, and the brain will often purge information it no longer needs. You can read this entire article and understand every word, but, if I asked you to repeat it verbatim tomorrow, you almost certainly will not be able to. The brain thinks, “I got the main point. I don’t need every word taking up memory space.”

That’s the kicker — a mnemonic device elevates the importance of information. It attaches seemingly mundane snippets of visual or auditory input to a more meaningful, impressive experience. Consider this: Multiple studies have shown that people are better at recognizing caricature drawings than actual photographs of celebrities. Why? Caricatures emphasize the most distinctive, talked about, memorable features of a famous face. A mnemonic similarly gives some kind of “famous” association to a particular information set that amplifies it in your brain.

Mnemonics also take information into a broader context. The treble clef is something I’d only ever have to think about with music, but by assigning it a story or a silly statement that has nothing to do with music, I now have more contexts to think about it. You see your dog who’s just being the goodest boy, and all of a sudden you’re making a neural connection to good boys and treble clefs. (Incidentally, don’t give your dog fudge. Chocolate is very bad for dogs.)

A study of 23 memory athletes — the kind of people who memorize outrageously long lists of random words at a competition — found that mnemonic training was a core component of their superior performance

How To Create a Mnemonic Device

Some people like songs and poems, others prefer initialisms, while others like making clever narratives similar to a memory palace technique. No matter what your personal preference is, it’s vital to use three principles: vivid, absurd, and rehearsed.

First, your mnemonic needs to be vivid. We often think of that as meaning visual, but a better definition is clear in your mind. When I say deoxyribonucleic acid, you cannot picture that. You don’t know how to spell it (so you can’t see it) and you aren’t certain how to pronounce it (so you can’t hear it). Instead, DNA flashes like a neon sign; it sounds like a steady drumbeat. We can see and hear this, so we remember it better. This is one of the reasons that songs work so well. Obviously, if you can sing it, it’s easy to hear and it gets stuck in your head naturally, plus songs lend themselves to visual language. If you can’t conjure an image, your mnemonic won’t work.

Next, choose something absurd. It doesn’t have to be funny or even unique — it’s really about making that out-of-context connection in your long-term memory. For example, I grew up in Michigan, and we learned HOMES to remember the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). That’s the most everyday, basic word. So why does it work? My theory is that it draws an unexpected, slightly absurd connection. Lakes aren’t homes. We don’t live in lakes. How silly! See, it’s not actually funny. It just creates an unusual association between an everyday concept and an otherwise random geography factoid.

Finally, it’s important to rehearse. If I ask you to recite the alphabet, I’m guessing that you’re going to start singing in your head. You can’t not sing the song, right? It’s because we’ve rehearsed it that way since preschool. Practice recalling the mnemonic before you even remember what it stands for. The more you think of them together, the better it will stick.

Adult Uses for Mnemonic Devices

Most of the examples so far have been about school, but mnemonics have plenty of real-world, “adult” applications too. Here are just a few:

  1. Remembering people’s names. Pro tip, don’t actually tell people you’re doing this. There’s an episode of The Office when Michael goes on a lecture circuit with Pam and he remembers everyone’s names by using insulting mnemonic devices. I’m just going to say, it’s not a bad strategy. Yours don’t have to be insulting, of course, but they can be a little weird. For instance, you might meet someone named Gary who wears glasses. You can consciously associate Gary wears glasses and be more likely to remember his name.
  2. Remembering complicated procedures or passwords at work. Invent a fun story or initialism to help you recall all of the steps involved in a complex protocol at work. This can also be helpful for memorizing a computer password you don’t want to write down. Use a fun story as an initialism to create a secure, hard-to-guess password. The story three pigs, one smart, two dumb, built houses of straw, stick, and brick could be the password 3P1s2dbhossab!, for instance. This technique is sometimes called using a passphrase.
  3. Remembering to-do lists or shopping lists. Yes, you could just have a note on your phone where you put grocery reminders, but you may find your shopping is more efficient if you have a list memorized in your head. Or what about those mornings when you wake up rushed and you forget all the things you were going to do before work? For example, maybe saying TTD reminds you that Thursday is trash day. Repeating that acronym a few times before bed on Wednesday night will help you remember to set out the bins the next morning.
  4. Strengthening your memory. Like the memory athletes mentioned above, you could just use mnemonic training to improve your memory, like doing a few jumping jacks throughout the day to stay fit. Take a deck of cards, draw five, then use a mnemonic device to remember their order. Queen H lives at 56 Club St. Apt 4D could be Queen of Hearts, 5 of Clubs, 6 of Clubs, Ace of Spades, 4 of Diamonds. Too easy? Challenge yourself with more until you can do the whole deck.

Using mnemonic devices is one of the best ways to pull something into your long-term memory so you don’t forget it.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He is a firm believer that good boys — and good girls! — all deserve fudge.

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