Memory Techniques

" was the meaning of words that was predominantly important. Each word had the effect of summoning up in his mind a graphic image, and what distinguished him from the general run of people was that his images were incomparably more vivid and stable than theirs. Further, his images were invariably linked with synesthetic components… which reflect the sound structure of a word and the voice of the speaker." A. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist

Brain post-it questions image

Rehearsal is an important step in the encoding and ultimate retrieval of information from long-term memory.

While there are a number of strategies regarding rehearsal, one of the oldest and most extensively studies is the method of mnemonics.

Mark Ashcraft defines mnemonics as any kind of remembering strategy, especially when long-term memory is involved. (Ashcraft, 1989, p. 144).

He points out that mnemonics forces you to learn the material well, provides a memorable and lasting record in long-term memory, and facilitates retrieval by providing necessary cues. There is a vast array of experimental evidence attesting to the positive effects of mnemonics on memory.

Mnemonics need not be visual in nature, but a great deal of work has been done concerning the relationship between the visual components of the mnemonics and visual quality of the mnemonics.

One interesting line of current research investigates the effect of the bizarreness and interaction of the imagery used on recall.

Wollen, Weber & Lowry (1972) cited in Matlin (1989) conducted a study varying the factors of bizarreness and interaction. Subject learned a series of word pairs such as 'cigar-piano'. In the bizarre/non-interaction condition, the images presented showed a piano with the keys coming off and a cigar that was burning at both ends. However, the images were separated on the pages; there was no interaction between them.

In the bizarre/interaction conditions, the piano was smoking the cigar. In the interaction/ non-bizarre condition, the cigar was placed on the piano. In the non-interaction/non-bizarre condition, both items were shown in their normal states, with no interaction.

The results showed that subjects recalled more pairs that were in interaction, regardless of whether or not the images were bizarre.

Conversely, Matlin (1989) also cites evidence showing that bizarreness does play a role in recall.

For example, in a study by O'Brien & Wolford (1982) cited in Matlin (1989), the authors found that, recall was immediate, there was not superior recall for bizarre images.

However, when recall was delayed, there was superior recall for bizarre images.

The topics of bizarreness and inter-action in regards to visual mnemonics are fruitful areas for research. However, you need not wait for science to sort out all of the variables and relationships involved.

As Buzan emphasized, and as the research supports, mnemonics are an extremely valuable tool to be used during encoding and rehearsal of material.

In addition, the research has shown that, if you imagine objects interacting, you will be more likely to remember them than non-interacting objects.

Another interesting study compared the effects of self-created images, presented by the experimenters and no images on learning.

Bull & Wittrock (1973) cited in Matlin (1989) asked fifth-grade students to learn words such as brain, magazine, trouble, and truth. The children in Group 1 read the word and its definition, wrote them, and then created their own images of the word and the definition. The children in Group 2 performed the identical task as those in Group 1, with the exception that they traced a given picture rather than creating their own. The children in Group 3 wrote the word and its definition over and over. When the children were tested for recall a week later, the children in Group 1, who created their own images, had the best performance, while the children in Group 3, who did no drawing, had the worst performance.

In this area, Tony Buzan repeatedly stresses the importance of creating your own images, either by copying and embellishing, or creating from scratch. The above study strongly supports Buzan’s emphasis. Recall was best when the children created their own images.

Another mnemonic strategy used is that of chunking. While our short-term memory store appears to be limited to approximately seven chunks of information, there is a wide variety of ways we can chunk this information.

For example, a 7-digit phone number may take up all of the capacity of short-term memory. However, if the phone number is chunked in some meaningful way, much more information can be simultaneously stored.

Chase & Ericsson (1982) cited in Glass & Holyoak (1986) conducted an experiment investigating the ability of subjects to remember strings of digits.

One subject in particular proved to be extremely interesting. Initially, he could remember 7 digits.

For example, a 7-digit phone number may take up all of the capacity of short-term memory. However, if the phone number is chunked in some meaningful way, much more information can be simultaneously stored.

However, after more than 2 years of practice, he could remember 82 digits. His strategy was to chunk digits that matched information he already had in long-term memory. For example, the sequence '351' was associated with a previous world record for running the mile.

The above research shows the information of relating information to already stored information. This may be very useful during presentation and meetings.

If you want people to remember a great deal of information, you must organise it into meaningful units or preferably, have each person organise it into his or her own meaningful units. In this way, you can increase the associations between words, concepts, which will lead to better retention and recall. This process of association and organization describes the Mind Mapping technique.

Mnemonics have been studied and successfully used for a great many years. While there may be limitations, such as the context effect discussed above, the advantages appear to far outweigh the possible disadvantages.

Two important points regarding the use of mnemonics that both the literature and Buzan emphasizes are (1) create images that interact. This will strengthen the associations and result in better recall and (2) create your own images. This may lead to greater depth of encoding and will result in better recall.

At the beginning of this article, Buzan briefly refers to a famous patient of Dr. Luria's who had an amazing ability to recall information. The story of this man is very exciting and has been widely addressed in the literature.

For further information about this and related subjects, the interested reader is referred to Neisser's Memory Observed and to Luria's The Mind of a Mnemonist.


Ashcraft MH. Human memory and cognition. Scott, Foresman and Company, Glenview, Ill; 1989.

Glass AL, Holyoak KJ. Cognition. Random House, New York; 1986.

Luria A. The mind of a mnemonist. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1968.

Matlin MW. Cognition. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc, New York; 1989.

Neisser U. Memory observed: Remembering in natural contexts. WH Freeman & Company, San Francisco; 1982.