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Memory Improvement

Students must learn and remember complex knowledge to do well in school. How can students use knowledge about memory to help remember their course material?

We will start with ancient memory improvement techniques that are still useful in specialized situations. Then we will review some concrete advice, backed up by research, which can help in almost any situation.

Mnemonic Systems

Mnemonics (nem-ON-icks) are organ­izing systems that provide a way of retrieving information. If retrieval is the weak link in memory, then it is logical that encoding schemes designed to promote retrieval are the best way to improve memory.

Mnemonic systems are designed for this purpose. They are encoding systems aimed at improving memory retrieval.

Why are mnemonic systems effective?

As you might recall, natural language mediation is the art of using language (sentences, sayings, little stories) to organize memory. On the page titled From Ebbinghaus to Encoding, we saw that subjects would turn nonsense syllables into words, sometimes made-up words, and weave these words into a sentence. That is a form of natural language mediation.

If you have to memorize a long list of items in exact order, a handy form of natural language mediation is to create a sentence using the first letter of each word as a retrieval cue. This is called a first-letter mnemonic.

One student used first-letter mnemonics extensively.

As I went through high school, I found it very difficult to remember a long list of items for an exam. I often made up a saying that involved the first letter of each item. This is called a mnemonic system of learning.

For mitosis, I remembered I Pick Maters And Taters for the phases of interphase, prophase, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase. For the classifications of animals I learned Kittens and Pigs Climb Over Fences Going South, which stood for kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, group, and species.

For my post office box combination I say to myself that Becky Said Hi Then Left. My combination is BC-HI-EF. For the 4 bases of DNA and RNA, I remember The Cat Got Ann, Ann Got Cut Up. The 4 bases of DNA are Thymine, Cytosine, Guanine, Adenine, and the 4 bases of RNA are Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, and Uracil.

This mnemonic system of learning helped me make it through high school and is presently helping me make it through college. [Author's files]

How did one student use a first letter mnemonic in Biology?

One can also make a sentence in which the number of letters in each word encodes digits. To remember the mathematical term pi to 14 decimal places, simply remember the sentence, "How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the eight chapters involving quadric mech­anics." Counting the letters in each word yields 3.14159265358979.

There is no special rule for creating mnemonic devices based on natural language mediation, except that the sentence or word must itself be memorable. A retrieval strategy does you no good unless you can remember the strategy.

The Method of Loci

One of the oldest mnemonic systems is the method of loci [LOW-sye]. A locus" is a location, loci is the plural. The method of loci uses locations of a familiar place (imagined in memory) as a framework for memory retrieval.

To use the method of loci, you associate items you wish to remember later with locations of a familiar room, building, or street. Then, to retrieve the information, you mentally stroll down memory lane and visualize the same locations.

If the method works, the information you stored in various locations will come back with the memory of the location. To be effective, one must usually visualize an object doing something or interacting with the various locations (see the following section on interactive imagery).

The method of loci is ancient. Cicero, the Roman orator, recom­mended it. Lecturers in his day were not allowed lecture notes, so mem­orization techniques were valued.

Cicero told a traditional story about how the method of loci was discovered. A Greek poet named Simonides was entertaining a group of wealthy noblemen at a banquet.

Suddenly a pair of mysterious figures called him outside. They were messengers from the Olympian gods Castor and Pollux, praised by Simonides in his poem.

As soon as Simonides stepped outside, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed, squashing everybody inside. The mangled corpses could not be identified until Simonides stepped forward, pointed to the place where each victim had been sitting, and recited each name in turn.

How did Simonides accomplish this feat? He mentally recreated the scene of the banquet, visualizing each reveler in his place. When he saw the places, it helped him remember the person who had been sitting there.

What is the story of Simonides, and how does it illustrate the Method of Loci?

The mother of one student used a technique similar to the method of loci with her children.

I can remember quite clearly something Momma did when we were small. If she told us to do something and we forgot what it was, she would make us go and sit or stand where we were when she told us, until we remembered. If we went to tell her something and forgot what it was, she would tell us to go back to where we were when we decided to tell her and we would remember what it was.

I can recall her doing this to me only twice but I recall laughing at my sisters and brothers when she did this. I was only about five or six years old, the baby of twelve children and they actually looked stupid to me doing this.

It worked, though. We still find ourselves doing this to remember things up to this day. It doesn't seem as crazy as it did about fourteen years ago. [Author's files]

Why did the mother's technique work? The children associated their memories with a location, like Simonides in the classic story. When the children returned to the location where they encoded the memory, they got some cues that helped them retrieve the memory.

The underlying process was the same for the children and for Simonides: locations provided cues to jog memory. This is a particularly good technique to use with children, because memory for location involves implicit memory.

Conscious effort is not required, to remember locations; it just happens. Children are as good as adults at implicit memory, which is not true of other forms of memory.

Interactive Imagery

An important element in the method of loci is interactive imagery. One item will help you remember another if they are linked (interacting).

In the method of loci, locations are used as cues. An item is much more likely to be remembered if it is imagined as being actively involved with the location in some way, rather than sitting there doing nothing.

When items are intertwined or associated they are said to be interacting. Then they become a single chunk or whole in memory.

What is the best way to insure that two items are remembered together? How important was "bizarre imagery"?

Bower (1970) studied the power of interactive imagery by having subjects imagine either adjacent images or interacting images. A subject in the non-interactive (adjacent-image) group might be given the word pair "dog, bicycle" and asked to imagine a dog sitting next to a bicycle.

A subject in the interacting-image group would be asked to imagine a dog riding a bicycle. The group using interactive imagery performed much better in a test of recall.

Research does not support the claim that memory is enhanced by unusual or bizarre imagery. Wollen, Weber and Lowry (1972) compared the performance of subjects using bizarre versus ordinary images.

Both groups did equally well. The researchers also compared interacting and non-interacting images. Like Bower, they found that interacting images produced superior recall.

The following figure show four types of images. The upper left image is "noninteracting and nonbizarre." It just shows a piano and cigar next to each other.

four images, some interacting, some bizarre
Images similar to those used by Wollen, Weber and Lowry (1972)

The upper right image, showing a piano from below with its keyboard peeling off and a cigar burning at both ends, was intended to be bizarre but noninteracting.

The bottom left image shows elements interacting, but it is not bizarre: the cigar is merely resting on the piano. Finally, the bottom right image, a piano smoking a cigar, is both interactive and bizarre.

Wollen, Weber and Lowry found that the interacting images, both bizarre and non-bizarre, were easy for participants to recall. Bizarreness by itself did not aid memory. A cigar resting on a piano was just as effective as a cigar being smoked by a piano for purposes of improving memory.

What did Wollen, Weber, and Lowry discover about bizarreness and interaction?

Why are interacting images so effective in helping memory? An interacting or well-integrated mental image is a unitary thing. It is formed as a whole, so it tends to be retrieved as a whole.

If you imagine a dog riding a bicycle, and later you remember the dog, the bicycle naturally comes with it. On the other hand, if the images are not interacting (the dog is sitting off to the side of the bicycle) you are more likely to remember one without the other.

Why are interacting images so effective?

Interactive imagery is an example of unitization, making of a unitary memory out of several different components. In almost every memory technique, differ­ent parts are combined into a unit, an integrated whole.

Because the different parts are grouped or unified, they function as one thing in memory. When one part of the thing is remembered, other parts are, too.

That is why mnemonic systems work: when one part is retrieved, the rest of it comes back into memory, too. This was also the key to chunking, George Miller's discovery announced in the article "The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two." Memory capacity was increased by grouping small items into larger chunks.

Unitization works well in adver­tising. A good advertisement combines several elements into a unified whole: the name of the product, a catchy jingle, and words that tell you what the product does. When you remember the catchy jingle, the name of the product will appear in your memory, automatically.

How can advertisers use unitization? What made the Wisk ad effective?

The banal ad, "Wisk around the collar for ring around the collar" was the longest-running ad campaign on TV, lasting over 20 years from the 1960s through the 1980s. It must have worked.

The product name was integrated with the ad slogan. If a consumer remember­ed the ad, or saw a dirty shirt collar, the name of the product came to mind.


Bower, G. H. (1970). Imagery as a relational organizer in associative learning. JVLVB, 9, 529-533.

Wollen, K. A., Weber, A. & Lowry, D. H. (1972). Bizarreness vs. interaction of mental images as determinants of learning. Cognitive Psychology, 3, 518-523.

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