Mnemonic Devices: Everything You Need to Know (And How to Use Them)
Instantly memorizing what you need to know is the ultimate dream for many people.
But for many, their inability to remember anything is the ultimate nightmare.
One reason people struggle is that there are so many terms. It can be confusing.
But the facts are that anyone can use mnemonic strategies to learn faster and remember more. You just have to find the approach that works best for you.
Here’s what this post will cover:
What Is A Mnemonic Device?
Mnemonic Device Examples
– Personally Created Flashcards
– The Memory Palace Technique
– Associative Imagery, Linking, and Pegwords
– Story Method
– Major System and Dominic System
– 00-99 PAO
– Mind Maps
Mnemonic Techniques and Strategies for Remembering Things
What Is A Mnemonic Device?
The best mnemonic device definition we can start with is this:
Anything that helps you remember better is a mnemonic.
Even the dictionary says that a mnemonic device is anything: “assisting or intended to assist the memory.”
For that reason, it’s a highly adaptable term that works as an umbrella to cover a wide range of activities including:
- Personally created flashcards
- Memory Palaces (sometimes called a Mind Palace, the Method of Loci, Journey Method, or Roman Room)
- Associative imagery, linking, and pegwords
- Story method
- Major System or Dominic System
- 00-99 PAO
- Mind Maps
- … and more
Given this adaptability, it’s little wonder there’s so much confusion over the term.
But here’s what I’d like you to notice:
None of these are really “devices.” They are processes.
As memory expert David Berglass made clear in A Question of Memory, memory is not a unitary mechanism or a “thing.” It is a behavior.
And that is how you use mnemonics. You understand them as processes and then you sprinkle them into your life so they become part of your behavior.
Let me make that more concrete:
When I gave a TEDx presentation, I not only memorized my talk — on that day, I memorized all the names of the people I met. I used a wide variety of techniques (see how to memorize a speech) and chose the specific mnemonic devices I used based on the circumstances.
Mnemonic Device Examples
Personally Created Flashcards
My friend and language learning expert Gabriel Wyner inspired me to give these a try after reading his book, Fluent Forever.
Basically, instead of downloading software put together by a stranger, get some paper and colored pens. (Obviously, you also have all the information you want to memorize organized too.)
Next, use the paper and colors to help you create images. These images should remind you of the target information you want to recall.
Flashcards as mnemonic devices for Chinese characters
Now, there’s a whole lot more going on in this example, so please keep it in mind. I’ll go deeper into it later in this post.
For now, if you’re worried about having a bunch of cards flying all over the place, don’t be. You can wrap them up in a Memory Palace drawing just like this:
I used simple and elegant combinations of mnemonic devices to pass level III in Mandarin last year
Have you ever asked… what is it called when you use letters to remember words? As usual, there’s no one answer, but the first method is called an acronym.
For example, when I teach memory improvement in a live setting, I usually talk about how following the rules will set you F.R.E.E.
“Free” is a word that helps me remember the meta-rules students need to make learning with memory techniques easy and fun:
Frequent practice in a state of…
Relaxation and a spirit of…
Experimentation so that you can be…
Just follow those rules as you use mnemonics and you will truly be free to memorize as much as you want.
The best part?
The Memory Palace Technique
The Memory Palace is an ancient technique. It essentially involves using space as a mnemonic device.
You do this by thinking about a familiar location. Then, you chart out a logical journey that does not take energy from your memory. If you have to memorize the journey, it is not a good Memory Palace, so pick something else.
For example, I visited a bookstore in Zamalek, a part of Cairo, Egypt. To keep it simple, I used only the parts of the bookstore I remembered.
To help my brain reduce the cognitive load even further, I made a quick drawing of the space:
A Memory Palace drawn on an index card to maximize its value as a mnemonic device
Notice I’ve actually drawn the Memory Palace on an index card (or flashcard). I do this because it makes it easy to store many of them for quick reference if I ever need them.
I also write down the number of stations and name them. I find this helps me “set and forget” the Memory Palace and ensure I’ve gotten it right the first time.
Associative Imagery, Linking, and Pegwords
Inside of these Memory Palaces, place a list of mnemonics you create. These will be a kind of mnemonic that are multi-sensory.
For example, think back to that first image I shared above with the flashcards for Chinese. Those colorful drawings help me remember the sound and the meaning of the Mandarin words.
But those mental images aren’t just on the flashcards! They’re also mentally situated on stations in the Memory Palaces I use.
(Some people call these stations “loci.” It’s basically the same thing, but “Magnetic Station” is my preferred term because recent advancements make them much more powerful than the ancient teachings suggest.)
To make such imagery, you will want to complete a number of exercises.
For example, go through the alphabet and think of an image for each letter. The pegword method is a great way to explore this technique further.
If you’re really serious about mastering the Memory Palace technique, you can explore having an image on each and every station.
For example, when I memorize cards, I always have images on the stations to help me “trigger” the row of cards I’ll be placing and later recalling on a Magnetic Station.
Basically, what I’m talking about is multiple levels of linking all at once. Some people talk about the linking method in a very weak way, that amounts to just “this links to that.” I don’t find that approach is strong enough.
What most of us need is for our association imagery to combine:
- Sound and meaning links at the granular level of the alphabet
- Multi-sensory links that are concrete and specific, not vague and abstract
- Tied tightly to space so that we are working from the foundations of the strongest level of memory: spatial memory
Furthermore, the real trick with these associative images is that they must:
- Actually associate in a way that triggers what you want to memorize (for example, the barber symbol I used on the card above triggers the ‘ba’ sound).
- Help you get back the meaning of the content (where relevant).
- Have a Memory Palace so you can mentally “find” the imagery. Some people don’t need the Memory Palace, but in my experience, they are few and far between.
Using a story (with or without a Memory Palace) is not much different than using, links pegs or associations. The only difference is that with the story method you’re adding the extra step of creating a narrative.
For example, let’s say you want to memorize a list of names at an event:
If you were using pegs, you would look at “h” when seeing Haley and associate her with something like Halley’s comet or a hat. Allan could be associated with an Allen key.
You can also spontaneously produce associations or have stock characters. For example, every Sharon could be Sharon Osbourne.
The story method, on the other hand, requires us to add a narrative to the association, such as:
Halley’s comet is crashing into an Allan key in the hands of Sharon who finds it burning hot and hands it to Andrew.
The story method can possibly be used without a Memory Palace. However, stories have parts. And those parts exist somewhere in your brain which means they are inherently spatially located.
I think you’ll find it a lot less mentally taxing to lay out any narrative elements you use in a Memory Palace.
Another way to approach the story method is to use a movie or novel plot you know well.
For example, let’s say you have mentally reduced The Matrix series down to three scenes: the hotel, the desert of the real, and Neo’s cabin on Morpheus’ ship.
For the first piece of information you want to remember, you would use the first room and perhaps Trinity doing her flying kick. Then you would move on to the next location for the next piece of information.
This example shows how stories are always spatial in nature from another angle… after all, if they don’t take place somewhere… how can they be stories?
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong to this application. It basically comes down to your level of skill, the context, and the nature of the information.
I personally would not add a story step while memorizing names in a live setting — and tend to create my associations on the fly rather than draw upon stock images. But if a stock image makes sense, I’ll certainly use it.
Major System and Dominic System
When it comes to associative imagery, the alphabet is a great tool. But it can also be mixed with numbers.
The Major System (often called the Major Method) helps you associate a consonant with each digit from 0-9. This mnemonic device has been in use since the Katapayadi of ancient India.
A more common approach that has been in use since the 1700s looks like this:
A more recent innovation is the Dominic System. It has some key differences, so make sure to study both.
PAO stands for Person, Action, Object. Basically, you’re taking the Major System and using it to help you make words from numbers.
Here are some examples from mine:
01 – Sad (tragedy mask)
02 – Sun (from the movie Sunshine)
31 – Mad Magazine mascot (often dressed as a maid)
Notice that I’ve put some concrete indicators in parentheses. This is because “sad” is not very evocative. It’s just a concept.
Tony Buzan is one of the greatest innovators of mind mapping, but he says in Mind Map Mastery that he abandoned this technique for improving memory back in the 70s.
He focused more on using keywords that help with creativity, problem-solving, and planning.
I feel that the conclusion to remove their use as a memorization tool was premature. If you would like to learn how to combine mind maps with Memory Palaces, for example, here’s a simple way to also add in the Major System for incredible results:
As you can see, it’s fun to mix keywords with the Major Method on paper in a way that turns the mind map into a simple Memory Palace.
And this is really just the beginning when it comes to learning how to remember things.
Mnemonic Techniques and Strategies for Remembering Things
Now, you might be wondering… how do you apply all of these techniques strategically?
The answer is that you need to explore on your own, ideally based on a clearly defined learning goal.
That said, here are some suggestions.
Mnemonic Strategy #1: How to Memorize Numbers
For learning numbers, you’ll want to have either the Major System or the Dominic System. Nothing will be lost if you develop skills with both. In fact, that is highly recommended.
You can even consider learning another version called The Shadow if you’re really ambitious. My friend and fellow memory expert Braden Adams talks about this technique here.
Mnemonic Strategy #2: How to Learn a Language
For learning languages, a solid Memory Palace Network is advised.
This means having one Memory Palace per most letters of the alphabet. (Skip x, y, z, etc. if you can’t come up with solutions. Just gather as many together as you can.)
If you have a Major System prepared, you can use this to help with memorizing words, such as using your image for 90 when you encounter a “bas” sound, etc.
Mnemonic Strategy #3: How to Memorize Names
For memorizing names, some people like to have prepared associations ready to go. For example, if they meet a Ron, they’ll use Ronald McDonald.
However, the world has evolved a lot and we’re increasingly in contact with people who have diverse names. For that, you’ll want to make sure your peg system is very robust.
Mnemonic Strategy #4: How to Memorize Music
For memorizing music, the Major System will be a must.
Here’s how to memorize a song — the post is very detailed and shows you how to turn your instrument into a Memory Palace to combine with the number system you choose.
Mnemonic Strategy #5: How to Memorize a Speech
For memorizing a speech, you can use acronyms or a Memory Palace. I’ve done a combination of both over the years, and sometimes will place acronyms in a Memory Palace.
Memory Palace using an acronym as a mnemonic device
For memorizing playing cards, most people take a Major System and develop it into a 00-99 PAO.
For example, in my system, the Ace of Spades is 11. Using the Major, the image is a toad. To make it more specific, I use the Warner Brothers toad. Each card has an image like this and then I lay them out in a particular Memory Palace I prefer for memorizing cards.
Please don’t think all of this is too difficult or complex. Frankly, the problem with the memory world is that so many teachers out there dumb it all down.
But when someone finally shows how all of these mnemonic devices work together in unison, you wind up getting great successes like James Gerwing winning the 2019 Canadian Memory Championship — as a retiree!
I Love Using A Combination Of Mnemonic Strategies — How About You?
We’re incredibly lucky.
Although it can be confusing, the Internet has enabled dozens of memory competitors, memory athletes, and plain ol’ memory fanatics like me to create tons of free content for the world.
Even though it’s easy to get lost in the intricacies, remember: Memory is not a thing. It is a behavior.
Dive into each of the approaches you learned today.
Really dig deep into their nuances through practice.
Let me know if you found this guide helpful and comment below. If there’s a mnemonic device I missed, please share it so I can update this post. All of us will be eternally grateful.
And if you want to learn more about how to make the most of your new mnemonic strategies using a Memory Palace, pick up your free copy of the memory improvement kit today!