How Mnemonic Devices for Memory Work
Mnemonics have been a staple of test preparation for decades, but many people don’t take the time to understand what makes them so effective. The answer lies in some interesting facts about how our brains process and retain information. Read on to learn what makes mnemonics so effective, and how you can use them to never forget those important facts.
The Function of Mnemonics
The mnemonic category is actually larger than you may think. Scientific American defines it as any memory trick that someone uses to help remember information. This can include rhymes, diagrams, and acronyms (the most popular thing that comes to mind.)
The way that mnemonics help us is by using the technique of remembering using association. In essence, it takes the data that we need and associates it with something that is simple to remember. Let’s use an example from the writing world–I before E except after C. The English language is full of rules that can be confusing to non-native speakers and youngsters alike. However, a rhyme is something that’s easy to remember, just think of nursery rhymes! So, with this example, you take a piece of obscure data and combine it with something that is easily memorable.
Here are 8 handy mnemonic devices to help you in your trivia exploits.
1. Colors of the Rainbow
This is a classic that has become a staple of people’s childhoods. The ROY G. BIV acronym helps people remember the common colors of the spectrum. Another version of this is Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain.
2. The Great Lakes
The Great Lakes are a series of freshwater lakes in the eastern United States. Fun fact: they are the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet. There are a couple of handy mnemonics to help you remember the Great Lakes. One way to think of this is that everybody wants HOMES on the lake which stands for:
- H is for Huron.
- O is for Ontario.
- M is for Michigan.
- E is for Erie.
- S is for Superior.
But, if you want to know the order from West to East as well as the order from biggest to smallest, go with this one:
- Super (Superior)
- Man (Michigan)
- Help (Huron)
- Every (Erie)
- One (Ontario)
3. The Classification of Life
Life is precious. It’s also kind of hard to remember. A good way to remember the 7 levels of the classification of living things is – Kids Prefer Cheese Over Fried Green Spinach. Not just a handy mnemonic device, but also a truism in life.
4. The Presidents on Mount Rushmore National Memorial
From left to right the order of the Presidents as found on Mount Rushmore are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Why are these the heads on the memorial? It has to be because they were so well loved…right? So go with this mnemonic device: We’re Just Really Likeable.
5. The Oceans and the Continents
If you have kids, it can be challenging to get the basics to stick. To help them remember the oceans, you can appeal to their sense of cuteness (and the absurd). Tell them a tragic, little tale about how penguins are needy and desperate and then go with the mnemonic device of Penguins Are Insecure And Sad for the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, and Southern Ocean. Perk things up a bit when it comes to the 7 continents. As you fix a little vitamin C filled treat remind them to Eat An Orange As A Nightly Snack for Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa, Antarctica, North America, and South America.
6. How to Remember Who is on Which Bill
Trying to recall which U.S. president or statesmen is portrayed on each denomination of the U.S. dollar bill? Here’s a lofty sentence to get you on track: “When juries lack honor, justice gets forgotten.” This represents the surname of someone whose portrait is on a U.S. bill, from $1 to $100.
- George Washington ($1)
- Thomas Jefferson ($2)
- Abraham Lincoln ($5)
- Alexander Hamilton ($10)
- Andrew Jackson ($20)
- Ulysses S. Grant ($50)
- Benjamin Franklin ($100)
7. The Order of Mohs Hardness Scale (From 1 to 10)
Who is this Mohs guy and why is he so concerned with hardness? Turns out Friedrich Mohs was a German mineralogist who devised the scale that measures the scratch or abrasion resistance of a property compared to a standard set of common minerals. The Mohs Hardness Scale is a standard in most any geology classroom, so you might as well learn it.
- Orthoclase feldspar
A sensible mnemonic device for this one is: The Geologist Can Find An Ordinary Quartz Tourists Call Diamond. However, if you are more about animals in your life try: The Giant Cat Found An Ordinary Turtle Cooking Dinner.
8. The Signs of the Zodiac
An old bartending trick when checking ID’s is to ask the person what their sign is? Most people with a fake ID memorize all the details about the license (e.g. the date of birth, city, height, weight and so on) but asking the Zodiac sign is a surefire way to trip them up. The thing is though, you as the bartender need to know these signs. The signs of the zodiac in order are:
There are quite a few mnemonic devices for this one, but my favorite is: As Times Goes, Cowboys Love Viewing Little Stars So Cool And Pretty. There’s just something about it that is both sweet and weird.
Create Your Own
There are tons of mnemonic devices that are used in various circles, but what you may not realize is that you can easily make your own if you take a little while to think about it. In fact, since not every type of device works well for everyone, you are more likely to retain the facts if you create your own. What you need to do is to create vivid mental images to make them more memorable. There are a lot of ways that you can make this happen. Try infusing colors or sensory things into the mnemonic, or a bit of humor to make things easier to remember.
The second piece of the puzzle to creating your own mnemonic is establishing association and context. For acronyms, this is easy, as the letters automatically create an obvious association. Context can be a bit more difficult. For example the old staple of math classes everywhere uses the PEMDAS example to learn the order of operations. Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally is a sentence that someone could easily actually state and remember (especially if they actually have an aunt named Sally). As a result, the sentence has an obvious context to work with. With a memorable image, obvious association, and context that gives you a reason to remember it, you can craft mnemonics to keep track of almost anything…even the provinces and territories of Canada.
Derek Pharr is Vice President of Products at Sporcle and an occasional writer of random topics and bad jokes. He also has an odd addiction to Taylor Swift songs and hates white foods.