Need help studying? Use memory aids!

Sabrina Khan
11 November 2014

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/Thinglass

Did you know? The average human brain can hold up to 7 items in memory at a time.It always helps to have a strong memory on test day. Teachers often drone on about how important it is to start studying early. But be honest: you sometimes leave things until the last minute, don’t you? And when you need to memorize something in a pinch, memory aids—also called mnemonic devices—are the perfect trick.

Method of loci

The most common technique (Sherlock fans will be familiar with this one!) is the Method of loci, which works by imagining a special place you are familiar with—or one you create in your imagination. This place is referred to as a “Mind Palace” or “Memory Palace.” As you visualize your palace, you can insert things you want to remember, such as a to-do list. If your first task of the day is to feed the dog, imagine a dog coming to attack you as you enter your palace. The more outrageous the images you fill your palace with the better, since the shock value will help you remember.

Did you know? Certain scents can boost memory because of a close link between the olfactory bulb (the area of brain responsible for scent) and the hippocampus (which plays a key role in memory).The Method of loci (“loci” is Latin for “locations”) can be used for memorizing anything from general ideas, like key points in speeches, to more specific information, like long sequences of numbers. The method has been employed by many prominent memorizers, including Dominic O’Brien, eight-time World Memory Champion.

Associations and chunking

Association and chunking techniques can come in handy when you are trying to optimize your memory palace or when you need to memorize regular data sequences.

You can use associations to link each item in a sequence with a different, more recognizable item. For instance, a zero looks like an egg, so you can imagine an egg in place of the zero in the sequence. Rhyming words work too. For example, one rhymes with sun.

By memorizing strings of numbers like this, you can either stick them into your mind palace as objects (an egg placed on the counter, sunlight shining through the window) or come up with a story about how each item relates to the others (the egg was illuminated by sunlight).

While chunking takes away the fun of the mind palace, it is very useful technique for remembering shorter strings of text or digits in everyday life. Phone numbers are a prime example: it is much easier to remember them in three- or four-digit chunks than as individual digits.

Peg words

Did you know? The first recorded use of the Method of loci, a common memory aid, is from the 6th century BCE. The Greek poet Simonides was at a banquet when the building collapsed. He was able to recall the seating arrangements and help identify the victims.The peg word method, another mnemonic device that uses rhyming, is very useful for remembering lists. However, in this method, the rhymes are used to help you remember other items.

Each rhyming word is associated with a number from one to ten (or a letter from A to Z) as well as an item you want to remember. For example, if the first three items on a shopping list were apples, coffee, and honey, you could imagine an apple orchard in the sunshine (one-sun), a coffeemaker (two-brew), and a beehive (three-bee).

The idea behind these connections is that there is no way you will forget how to count from 0 to 10 (or how to recite the alphabet). The peg word method is particularly useful for remembering the order of things—you will always remember to buy apples first, since they are associated with the number 1.

When all else fails, try singing

Other, more common types of memory aids include songs, diagrams, and pictures. Or you can just create stories out of your study material. Figure out which style of memorization suits you best, or come up with combinations (like combining the Method of loci with associations or peg words) to make them work for you. Whether you procrastinate or stay on top of things, memory tricks can vastly improve your memory performance in the classroom and in everyday life.

Learn more!

Ancient Imagery Mnemonics (2014)

Nigel J.T. Thomas, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Article on the origins of the Method of loci.

How smells stick to your memories: Your nose can be a pathfinder (2014)

Norwegian University of Science and Technology, ScienceDaily

News release on research into how the brain associates smells and memories.

10 Easy Tricks To Greatly Enhance Your Memory (2013)

Gregory Myers, Listverse

Article explaining several techniques including Method of loci, peg words, and chunking.

Memory given a boost by playing sounds during sleep (2013)

Telegraph (UK)

Report on research into how playing sounds that are synchronised to brain waves during sleep can improve test performance.

Hacking our senses to boost learning power (2013)

Catherine de Lange, BBC Future

Report on research into using music, noises, and fragrances to improve students’ test results.

Transfer of the Method of Loci, Pegword, and Keyword Mnemonics in the Eighth Grade Classroom (2008)

A. S. Richmond, R. Cummings & M. Klapp, Researcher 21(2), 1-13

Article describing an experiment where Grade 8 students were taught different memory aids.

Sabrina Khan

I'm a science-lover, DIYer and tinkerer. I enjoy building things that are useful and functional, which are usually things to make my life easier. My favourite fields of science are chemistry and physics, but I have discovered a newfound passion for astronomy as well. Aside from science and writing, I like to read, travel and play football.



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