Psi man mascot

Summary: Memory Improvement

Systems to aid memory are called mnemonic systems. Some use natural language mediation, where sentences, words, rhymes, and little sayings provides a structure to encode memories.

Examples are first-letter mnemonics. A list of items is remembered by using their first letters in words that form a sentence. Later, to retrieve the series, the sentence is recalled, then the first letters of the words in the sentence are used as cues to reconstruct the list.

The method of loci was a mnemonic technique used by Roman orators. It involves visualizing items in familiar locations of a room, house, or street with which one is very familiar.

Later, by mentally reviewing these same locations, one retrieves a memory of the item associated with each location. The method of loci relies upon interactive imagery: the intertwining of two or more images into a single whole.

Experiments show interactive imagery is more important than bizarreness of images, for improving memory. In TV ads as well, unitization (making things into a unit) helps insure that the desired information is remembered.

The spacing effect implies that repeated study sessions are more effective when spaced farther apart. The most helpful repetitions are those that occur when material is almost forgotten.

The most logical way to study any material is to match the studying to the requirements of the test. This is called task-appropriate processing. It implies, for example, that the best way to prepare for an essay test is to practice writing essays.

Effort put toward memory does not always help. In one study, group #1 knew they would be tested and tried to memorize a list of items. Group #2 did not know they would be tested and imagined how they would use the items on a deserted island.

The second group remembered more of the items than the first group. Organi­zation helped more than intentional memorization.

Students can help create their own organizing frameworks by generating cue sheets. These are cards or sheets or word processor files that condense crucial facts into a tightly knit summary.

By the time a good cue list is con­structed, it can usually be set aside. The ingredients, being well organized and compact, will be available in memory.

Individuals with extraordinary memory abilities have been documented for over a hundred years. Often they are called mnemonists but Neisser suggested a better term would be memorists because these people seldom used formal mnemonic systems.

One memorist who did use a mnemonic system was Luria's subject, known as "S." He used the method of loci, visualizing familiar streets and other locations to memorize lists of items.

S. may have been extraordinary in another way. He apparently experienced synesthesia, the stimulation of visual images by sounds. Words led to visual images he could remember using the method of loci.

Autistic savants can sometimes perform prodigious feats of memory. Daniel Tammet is a savant who also has synesthesia and an extraordinary memory for numbers. Stephen Wiltshire could look at a cityscape and reproduce it from memory as a detailed sketch.

Eidetic imagery is the technical term for so-called photographic memory. There was only one case reported in the literature, and the psychologist who reported her case later married her and refused to replicate the early demon­strations of her memory.

Professor Aitken, an extraordinary memorist described by Hunter, memorized things simply by finding them interesting. He described a "relaxed, yet possessed" state of mind in which he could "let the properties of the material reveal themselves."

What all the extraordinary memorists seem to have in common is (1) a need to find things interesting, (2) the use of imagery, and (3) a trancelike state of absorption, and (4) an ability to let the mind work without distraction, so they could (5) apprehend the relationships between details in the material they were memorizing.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.