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Tuesday 16 April 2013

The Most Useful Mnemonic Ever

Three is a ... ?

When I attended first year psychology (a course so general in scope that it invariably turns into a kind of academic variety show), the instructor amused us for an hour by discussing mnemonic devices and the theory behind them.

Some mnemonics work by ordering concepts into letter sequences:
  • SMART goals are small steps characterized by being Specific, My own, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-defined. 
  • The cranial nerves are supposedly remembered by “On Old Olympus’ Towering Top, A Finn And German Viewed Some Hops.” (In other words, Olfactory, Optic, Oculomotor, Trochlear, Trigeminal, Abducens, Facial, Auditory, Glossopharyngeal, Vagus, Spinal Accessory, Hypoglossal.) With its letter repetitions this is perhaps the least helpful mnemonic in history (or at least that’s how I considered it while writing a neuropsychology exam).
Other mnemonics rely on the memorability of imagery. Greek orators allegedly remembered their speeches by placing their ideas in sequence in different rooms of an imaginary house. During the talk they would walk through the house and be reminded of what to say next.

But way back there in that first psychology course I learned one of the most basic and widely-known mnemonics – and it has proven itself to be invaluable to me ever since. It’s a visual mnemonic used for remembering lists of unrelated ideas or items. To begin, you have to memorize a rhyming sequence:
  • One is a bun
  • Two is a shoe
  • Three is a tree
  • Four is a door
  • Five is a hive
  • Six is a bundle of sticks
  • Seven is heaven
  • Eight is a gate
  • Nine is a mine
  • Ten is a hen
You can add more numbers, but I find that 10 usually suffices. If I have more items to recall it’s generally time to start a paper list.

To remember your list of items, you create an image that combines the item with the visual element associated with each number. If you need to buy eggs at the store, you might imagine a bun with egg in the middle.

When it's time to remember your list, call up the numbers one at a time, recall the element associated with that number (eg, a hive), and retrieve the item from the image you created. The last image you created for that element will usually be quite accessible to memory. "A bun - ahh, an egg muffin. I need eggs."

I use this mnemonic whenever:

  • I catch myself thinking of things I should remember at a later time, 
  • and I do not have immediate access to pen and paper or don’t want to bother with the list making tool on my phone.

A Sample List

I was using it this morning on my way to work. So here’s my To Do list:
  1. Ask the clinic receptionist to mail out a new clinic announcement with brochures. A bun sandwich in which the filling is a stack of brochures.
  2. Write a blog post. A computer on my desk, the browser showing a person’s blog about shoes.
  3. Take the box with my tax information to the accountant. My accountant’s office, with a Christmas tree in the middle of the reception area.
  4. Check the payments from my online diaphragmatic breathing course ( to ensure none came in during 2012. A door opening to reveal a person breathing diaphragmatically, money in hand.
  5. Send slide handout pdfs to the workshop coordinator in New Brunswick. A handout package under a beehive with honey leaking all over it.
  6. Edit the next lecture for my online course on group therapy (see last week’s post). A circle of chairs in a group room, each with a large stick on it.
  7. Pay payroll taxes at the bank. My bank as the unlikely entrance to heaven, a bearded god-figure as the teller.
  8. Book flights for a workshop in Kingston. Me at the airport waiting room, with a literal farmyard-style gate leading to the plane.
  9. Go online and renew my Canada-USA Nexus card. A sign pointing to the United States which leads into a dark mine.
  10. Sort through the papers which seem to have built up in my computer bag. A hen sitting on a stack of paper.
Quiz Time

Try something. This isn’t your To Do list, so it doesn’t mean much to you. But you can easily remember it anyway. Read the above ten items one more time, forming each image in your mind. Then let the images go. Don’t try to retain them.

Then scroll up to the “One is a bun” list, hiding my To Do list. Feel free to use the rhyming list as a reminder, given that you probably haven’t memorized it yet.

Write the numbers from 1 to 10 on a piece of paper. Beside each number write down the things I have to do today. You’ll probably get most of them without much difficulty.

Now: Imagine not using the mnemonic. If I told you 10 things I had to do today, how many of them do you think you would remember? In this particular instance the order of the items is random. But what if I asked you to remember the 10 items and the number assigned to each one – how well do you think you would do?

If this worked for you with someone else’s To Do list, imagine how well it might work for a list of items that have personal meaning for you.

When could you use this strategy? 

I use it whenever I have a few things I want to recall later. So ...
  • Anytime you have a list of items to recall and don’t have paper or electronic device handy (in the shower, driving to work, eating dinner in a restaurant).
  • When you have a short list of things to remember and don’t want to keep checking your paper or phone – like when you are doing a quick shopping trip.
  • When you have to remember the order of a list (first Home Depot, then Acupuncturist, then Flower Shop, then Postal Outlet, then London Drugs).
  • When you have five things to say to someone (like symptoms you want to report to your physician) and you don’t want to be looking at a script (this is a substitute for the Greek orator’s imaginary house).
You’d think that given the usefulness of this strategy I would have taken the time to learn a huge set of mnemonic devices to assist me. But I haven’t. This one is good enough for most purposes.  Try it yourself.

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