Six Tips for Better Mnemonics

Having now spent a few weeks working on my mnemonics, and gotten four lessons into the 21-lesson Memory Master course, I’ve discovered a few things.

1) Be Stanley Ipkiss. Watch old cartoons.
It’s not as easy to come up with wacky links as it looks. Especially if this is your fiftieth of the day, and you’re a bit tired and hungry, and you know you’ve got another forty minutes of work ahead of you before you can even think about starting dinner. Putting it in the context of a Looney Tunes or Animaniacs cartoon (or Terry Gilliam animation) helps. Invoking that kind of spirit in your associations (whatever they are) helps. Trying to use violence or disgusting subjects actually makes it harder for me to remember, my brain seems to shy away from remembering those images. Sex helps, but not as much as you’d think. Comedy, comedy, comedy’s the thing.

2) Write it down.
It’s a quantum leap easier to remember information as I write it down. Yes, with a pen. Yes, on paper. Yes, I know they belong in a museum. It slows me down, seems more real…Initial Awareness, remember? We’re trying to raise it. Writing the list down in a notebook raises it, even if I throw the paper away right afterward (or hand it to Marissa so she can check me). It works much better for me than reading the list (from paper or screen) or hearing them aloud. I am working on making my intake of the latter stronger, so that I can apply mnemonics to things which are not easily written down (people’s names, for example).

3) Walk through the list in reverse.
Even if you don’t (or can’t) write it down, walk through the list backwards after you’ve finished forming all your links. This reinforces all the images, and familiarizes you with what it “feels like” in reverse. And, I don’t know about you, but I find it a lot easier to start at the end and work backwards. I used to solve mazes the same way as a kid.

4) Read this list.
My mother sent this to me (thanks, Mum!). Number eleven is basically mnemonics systems in a nutshell, and number fourteen talks about associations. Although it’s geared towards studying for school, most of them are applicable to other situations as well. Seriously, go read it. Memorize it, if you like.

5) Apply spaced repetition.
Use spaced repetition to really cement associations in your mind. Spaced repetition is remembering the material at longer and longer intervals (after one minute, one hour, one day…). Sounds simple, but according to studies like this one from UC San Diego, it’s a remarkably effective way to keep things in mind longer. I can offer my own testimony, in that I memorized the list of observation exercises through spaced repetition over the course of forty-eight hours, first an hour later, then twelve hours later (over my Five Will Get You Twelve, no less), then the next day…

6) Remember your limits.
By that, I mean, keep a few things in mind. Remember that, by and large, you have been memorizing lists of discrete information. They are data, and not knowledge. Knowledge comes from putting things in context, how your data (or facts) are important or relevant. You need savoir faire, not just savoir. You need to know how to use it, not just what it is. Mnemonics will help you keep facts around, but making those facts relevant and putting them in a logical framework to use later is your job.


About R. Jean Mathieu

They say he speaks five languages, was conceived on a chess board, and once seduced a tong boss' daughter and lived to tell the tale. All we know is, he's called Roscoe. You can find more scurrilous lies at and buy his books at View all posts by R. Jean Mathieu

One response to “Six Tips for Better Mnemonics

  • sridhar

    Hi Mathieu,

    very interesting article, I love mnemonics and I coin many mnemonics during freetime. in fact, my blogs contains only mnmemonics. keep in touch as we share same interest.

    Sridhar Chandrasekaran

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