Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Making Memory Work...Mnemonics

When discussing memory, there are three types of memory psychologists look at:
  1. Active-working memory is where our brains  hold information while we work things out.  Active working memory allows us to stream information as we decide whether we want to work with it immediately (to compare or contrast, to decode or encode, for example), whether we need more 'work space' and send it to short-term memory, or whether we want to ignore it.
  2. Short-term memory is where we take incoming information (from active-working memory and /or from long-term memory) to actively manipulate chunks of data.  It is our memory's work table.  This is where we evaluate, compare, contrast, brainstorm, critique, create.  Short term memory, however, has a limited capacity.  Research has shown that on average we can hold 7 (plus or minus 2) bits of 'data' in our short-term memory.  So IF there is more information than we can comfortably handle, we need tricks and means to effectively work and remember.  Tricks include chunking, rehearsing, and mnemonics.  IF the product of our effort is deemed 'valuable' it will be stored for longer periods (often with some more help from chunking or rehearsing) in our long-term memory.
  3. Long -term memory is our brain's file cabinet.  This is where we store information for long periods of time (such as important dates  important facts we have to learn in school, important telephone numbers, procedures we must follow, where we put our keys last night when entering our homes). Long-term memory can store relatively large quantities of information for a potentially long time (for many we hope a life-time).
This past April, I posted a blog (http://departingthetext.blogspot.com/2011/04/memory-what-memory.html) that illuminated how much a school day demands of memory and gave some (hopefully) helpful hints on how to help kids boost memory through:
  • Repetition and Rehearsal
  • Visualization
  • Rhyming
  • Building Associations

Today I want to focus on mnemonic devices we can use to help us chunk and store information.

From: facebook.com
Mnemonic devices refer to rhymes, images, and chunks of data that we 'creatively' put together to help us expand and sharpen our short and long term memory capacities.  There are two basic issues in setting up mnemonics.  They have to be meaningful and 'chatchy' enough for you to remember them! Furthermore, what works for some people does not work for others.   It gets back to what is meaningful and catchy to you.  As a result, there are tons of rhymes, images and songs for the taking!

Speaking personally, the long verbal chains and sentences were not much of a help to me, because I could not remember the sentences - especially if they didn't make sense.  Everyone is different and part of the trick with mnemonics is finding what works best for you.  Sometimes it helps singing songs others have created, and sometimes it means creating your own.  You and your kids should experiment!   I have included some of the more popoular/traditional mnemonics below, but would love to hear what your favorite mnemonics have been in the comments (why constantly have to re-invent the wheel).

Here's what I've collected:
Verbally Based Mnemonics:  Many mnemonic devices are verbal and involve short poems, acronyms (a word or phrase with the first letter of things we are remembering) or songs to remember lists of related things:
  • "30 days has September, April, June and November; all the rest have 31 except for February"
  • Acronym: "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain"  or...ROY G. BIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet)  = the colors of spectrum
  • Acronym for the Great Lakes:  HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior)
  • Acronym for the nine planets (when you include Pluto): "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pancakes" or "My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Porcupines" (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto). Here's what Stephen Colbert does to remember the planets (although he does have a Pluto dilemma):
  • To read music:

Visual Mnemonics:
  • Color codes (many of our internet boxes and TV's for example have color coded nodes to help us 'connect').
  • Charts, graphs, and diagrams;
  • Using your knuckles and the dips between them to remember which days of the month have 30 or 31 days:
  • The ABC song
  • Pinky and the Brain with parts of the brain
  • Animaniacs with the US Presidents (they also have one for countries of the world but the links I found were poor quality).
There are so many mnemonic devices I cannot possibly list them all.  I'm hoping you'll help.  Please list your favorites in the comments and hopefully this can serve as a resource to us all ---old and young, who need the occasional memory boost!  In the meantime, here is one of my kids' favorite mnemonic songs from Pinky and the Brain, for remembering parts of the brain:

Thanks for your visit... and...Don't forget to leave your favorites in your comments!


  1. Very impressive. It's great to have posts with CONTENT.

  2. I cannot go to the store and remember more than 3 or 4 items, because I'll see something else, put it in the cart, and that drives one of the original items out of the brain. Lists!

    I learned to spelll encyclopedia fromk a Mickey Mouse song. I STILL can't spell rhythm without thinking Ruth Has Your Torn Home Magazine. Musical lines: Every Good Boy Does Fine.

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  3. I was going to say some of the same things Roger said about repeating sayings to help remember.
    I hate seeing my Daughter in law's Dad loosing his memory. He's 91 and often goes back into his early childhood but doesn't remember his daughter. The middle times memory seems to be mostly gone. Its sad.

  4. Interesting post. When my kids were very young I taught them our phone number and their full names and address to sing as a song.

  5. I learned the books of the Bible, by a little song that names them in order. But don't ask me to sing it now, I can only remember half of it.

    It amazing how the mind works, I remember a few years ago, my friend and I were talking about something, and we couldn't remember it's name. A few days later with her and some other friends, I suddenly remembered the name, and said it and she immediately knew what I was talking about, and we continued on to where we had left off a few days before. The others wondered what we were talking about.

  6. Very interesting!!! I try to exercise my memory every day...!
    M is for...

  7. I have a friend who once worked in the main biology building at the University of Toronto. I could never remember his office number, but it was easy enough to find if I got off on the right floor, so he gave me a mnemonic: he was studying starfish, starfish have five arms, he worked on the fifth floor. And it worked like a charm, so well in fact that I can still remember it more than 20 years later!

    My ABC Wednesday is Another Mouse.

  8. Another interesting topic Meryl. My FIL is 89 and sometimes he forget a lot of stuff but remember most of his childhood.

  9. Great post.

    happy not so WW!

  10. Well, Meryl ! That was very interesting and great fun at the same time. My favourite is: My very elegant mother sat upon nine porcupines! Of course we had to learn a lot of those rhymes or sayings, but then in Dutch. We had to learn four languages at the secondary school, each of them having its own problems. Nowadays students can choose which foreign language they want to learn besides Dutch. Believe me I forgot more than I learnt if this were possible! Never mind, there is always Google.

  11. Hi Meryl - thank you so much for stopping by my blog. I love this article! My 4yr old has already learned the planets since we have them as glow in the dark stickers on her bedroom wall. Looking forward to perusing your site even more.

  12. Fascinating article! Plus, I love love love Animaniacs! My first zombie drawing is wearing a Brain t-shirt.

  13. It's so vital to keep our brains sharp so we can function in all three memory categories. I like rhyming and visualization. When my kids were little, we made up a tune using our phone number so they could remember it.

  14. I love the US Presidents song, catchy and useful. One of my favourite spelling memory aids is for stationery - which has an 'e' for envelope.

  15. Interesting post. I used to have a good memory but at this point I can't remember much at all. I guess I remember things I learned a long time ago better than more recent information.

  16. thanks for joining *Tina´s Wordless Wednesday*

  17. "Remember Bangladesh" I once heard that said over so much food on our dining table and I fussed about eating something else. Two decades later, I still hate it when I see food wasted.

    Have you seen The Pacifier? What do you think of the Peter Panda Dance? (simplicity-complexity duo)

  18. Interesting article! My memory isn't the greatest, never has been I guess. I can run to the store with a list, and not always get everything I have (forgetting a thing or two)! My daughter on the other hand whom is 4, her memory is QUICK. Taught her our phone number (incase she is lost or something happens), now when anyone asks for our phone #, shes the FIRST to blurt it out :)

    Newest follower via GFC, hope you'll follow back!


  19. Found your blog through Hop Along Friday and am now a GFC follower.

    Would love a follow back on my blog