Mnemonics, Not Magic

How to Accomplish Feats of Memory

By Francis Deng

"Everyone has a photographic memory. Some just don't have film." - Anonymous

The current World Memory Champion, Ben Pridmore, memorized 819 digits in 15 minutes. Other world records for memorization include such extraordinary feats as recalling the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than 30 seconds, 110 fictional historic dates in five minutes, and 255 random words in 15 minutes.

Memory has long been used as a measure of intelligence, but what really distinguishes individuals who can memorize thousands of digits from those who cannot? Just practice. Competitive mnemonists are quick to note that the secret to their success lies not in any innate mental abilities, a claim proven by various neuroimaging studies (Ericsson 2003). Rather, they attribute their success to the dedicated rehearsal of a few mnemonic techniques that, they claim, anyone can learn. In fact, practitioners of the "art of memory" have used mnemonics to improve, recall, and organize information efficiently since the time of the ancient Greeks. As Pridmore says, "Everybody is born with a good memory; then most people are trained how to use it badly." This article will look at what studies tell us about how to use our memories for activities from remember mailbox combinations to studying for exams and reveal the secrets that can drastically improve them.

Much psychological research substantiates the claim that one does not need a "special" memory to be good at memorization. In one study, psychologists at Carnegie Mellon investigated whether ordinary college students could develop a world-class memory with practice, and indeed, the results suggested that they could (Chase & Ericsson 1981). The researchers invited average undergraduates to daily sessions where they would be presented with strings of digits that they would then have to recall. During the first few weeks of this exercise, the students did not get far past seven or so digits (the number thought to be the capacity of human short-term memory). Soon enough, however, student began recalling steadily more and more digits. After several months and several hundred hours of training, SF could recall 82 random digits, in order, after having only seen them once.

What happened? Did reciting digits repeatedly exercise some numerical memory muscle? No, SF's astounding feat of memorization stems from the use of his own mnemonic devices that became more and more elaborate with practice. He was a track runner, so he associated chunks of three digits with running times that had meaning to him. For example, he would think of the number 359 as '3 minutes 59 seconds for running a mile.' He took meaningless information and encoded it into something more memorable, a task that other ordinary students after SF achieved (Ericsson 2003).

The key to mnemonics is creating a strong mental association between one to-be-remembered item and one easily remembered item. Most of us have used mnemonics since elementary school: "Roy G. Biv" for the colors of the rainbow, "Every Good Boy Does Fine" for the notes on the treble clef, and "'i' before 'e' except after 'c'" for spelling. While these first-letter mnemonics and rhyme mnemonics can be very useful, these tactics are limited as general strategies of memorization. When acronyms and acrostics are troublesome, pieces of verbal information can instead be linked to mental images, letting you perform your own feats of memory.

Using Imagery

A better mnemonic device may be to link the to-be-memorized information to mental images, creating a unique association. In 1966, Frances Yates published The Art of Memory and set off a flurry of experimental memory research. In the following decade, psychologists conducted a variety of experiments that demonstrated the power of using mental imagery rather than rote repetition to remember information. In one experiment (Bower 1972), researchers instructed two groups of subjects to memorize a list of 20 word pairs. One group was instructed to repeat the word pair to themselves (rote), while the other group was told to visualize each word pair interacting in some way. For example, if the word pair were cat-bicycle, you might imagine a cat inside the basket of a bike. Imagery-instructed subjects recalled pairs up to three times better than rote-instructed subjects did. In an interesting twist, subjects told to imagine separate images for each word pair did not perform much better than the rote memorizers did. It turns out that for imagery to create an effective and cognitively meaningful association, the objects must interact in some way.

Many mnemonists also claim that the conjured image will work best if it is vivid, bizarre, or comical (a phenomenon known as the Von Restorff effect). With the previous word pair (cat-bicycle), for instance, you might imagine a fat cat riding a bike or a bike gruesomely running over a cat. These visuals may be more memorable because (a) our minds pause longer when thinking about weird interactions, (b) the memory is likely to be freer from interference from similar memories, and (c) the memory is emotionally colored.


While word pair associations may be useful for memorizing facts, mnemonics can even be used outside of the classroom. In fact, elaborate associations can help develop interpersonal skills, something that is especially useful in college. When you meet somebody new, you must learn to match the new name with the new face. To help you master this important social talent, here is a mnemonic tip: vividly connect one distinct feature of the person with a concrete object easily associated with his or her name. In other words, remembering someone's name involves two links: one between the face and the associated keyword-object, and another between the keyword-object and the name. For the latter, you could think of an object that has similar properties to the name: Jenny sounds like penny, Rosenberg spells a rose and iceberg, Diane rhymes with fan. Imagine Diane (name) and her dark wavy hair (feature) becoming horrifically caught (vivid interaction) in your fan (keyword associated with name), Tony giddily riding a pony with his wide smile, or Allan's large head getting surgically drained of a gallon of fluid. Alternatively, you could take advantage of connections already made in your memory: associate Alexander with telephones (Graham Bell) or Serena with a tennis racket (Williams). (For many more examples of name associations and mnemonic strategies, see The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas.) If learning names is not enough, you can also apply this mnemonic to art class. In a recent study, college students who learned to employ an adapted face-name mnemonic strategy to associate paintings with their artists' names substantially outperformed controls who were left to their own methods (Carney & Levin, 2000).

For mnemonic imagery to be effective, it should not only be interactive and distinctive, but also concrete. Ask yourself, why can we remember a fan more easily than the name Diane? Because the fan is a concrete object with a solid image. Imagery works because of its vividness in our mind's eyes. Paivio and colleagues (1969) showed that concrete words like cat are more accurately recalled in various memory tasks than abstract words such as truth. So how can we memorize concepts? One tactic is to transform the abstract into a symbol that can be visually represented. For instance, think of the Veritas shield for truth, a pair of ski poles for the number 11, or flicking on a light bulb switch for realize.

Learning Languages: Keyword Method

Imagery can also be of great help in studying foreign languages, since visual imagery mnemonics help link the irregular and the unknown (the foreign words you're trying to memorize) with the familiar and easily remembered (the corresponding translation). The first step in this process is to associate a foreign word with a similar-sounding and easily visualized English keyword or phrase. The second step is make the keyword and the foreign word's translation interact in an image, thereby creating a link between the foreign word and its meaning. For example, you can remember the Spanish word for head, cabeza, as a giant Mr. Potato Head sticking out of a taxicab filled with bees. Evidence for the effectiveness of this type of mnemonic device comes from a study by Atkinson & Raugh (1975). In this study, Stanford undergraduates were presented with 120 Russian vocabulary words and allowed three days of study. Students in the experimental group, who were given training on using the "keyword method," remembered 26% more words than students who received no such training.

Linking Images: Method of Loci

Sometimes, the situation calls for more than just creating an association between two bits of information. You may want to link multiple pieces of information together, such as memorizing a timeline of events or the sequence of an experimental method. To link multiple items and their images together, the top competitive memorizers in the world invariably use the "method of loci," which was used by ancient orators to memorize speeches. Also known as the architectural mnemonic, this device involves first memorizing a series of familiar locations or 'loci,' such as various objects in your dorm or landmarks around campus, and then using imagery to associate items with each locus. You can then take a mental stroll to visit each locus, seeing in your mind's eye each item in sequential order. During recall tasks, brain scans of champion memorizers not only show increased activity in areas associated with visual imagery, but also increased activity in areas linked to spatial navigation (Maguire et al. 2002).

Although it may sound daunting, learning the method of loci is no arduous task. Ross and Lawrence (1968) gave a group of college students instructions on using the method of loci. First, the students took two mental walks through campus and learned 52 loci well enough to recite them forward and back. Then the researchers asked the students to study many 40-item-long lists, with about 13 seconds given for each item. As a result, the students on average recited more than 95% correct immediately after studying, and still more than 85% the next day.

Linking Images: Peg System

An alternative to the loci method is the "peg system." This system also uses imagery, but associates to-be remembered information with a pre-memorized list of words in order to create an ordered list. One common peg system is based on the children's rhyme "one, two, buckle my shoe´┐Ż" and depends on a list of numbered "pegs" upon which to-be-remembered items can be "hanged": "one is a bun, two is a shoe, three is a tree, four is a door, five is a hive, six is sticks, seven is heaven, eight is a gate, nine is wine, ten is a hen." To remember the first ten U.S. presidents, for example, hang Washington (a washing machine, perhaps) on peg one (hundreds of hot dog buns in a washing machine), Adams on peg two, and so forth.

To increase the capacity for remembered items, the peg system may be used in conjunction with the "link system," which consists of constructing a chain of mental images. The links in the chain are pairs of to-be-remember items, so the first is associated with the second in one image, the second is associated with the third in a separate image, and so on. Using the link system, you can recall an ordered list that contains more items than there are pegs, because each peg is its own list. The highly versatile link system can even aid in memorizing pictures or symbols, such as when learning Chinese characters, by linking one element to another in a chain-like fashion.

With these tips in mind, you can systematically remember all the little details you need to understand and excel in your classes. Remember, the key to these mnemonics' effectiveness is making information more meaningful by adding associations, more organized by adding patterns, and more readily available by adding cues that activate different parts of the mind. Using mnemonics well requires a little practice and creativity, but a photographic memory is certainly within your reach.


Atkinson, R. C., & Raugh, M. R. (1975). An application of the mnemonic keyword method to the acquisition of a Russian vocabulary. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 1, 126-133.

Bower, G. H. Mental imagery and associative learning. In L. W. Gregg (Ed.), Cognition in learning and memory. New York: Wiley, 1972.

Carney, R. N., & Levin, J. R. (2000). Mnemonic instruction with a focus on transfer. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(4), 783-790.

Chase, W. G., & Ericsson, K. A. (1981). Skilled memory. In J. R. Anderson (Ed.), Cognitive skills and their acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Ericsson, K. A. (2003). Exceptional memorizers: made, not born. Trends in Cognitive Science, 7(6), 233-235.

Lorayne, H. and Lucas, J. (1974). The memory book. New York: Stein and Day.

Maguire, E. A., Valentine, E. R., Wilding, J. M., & Kapur, N. (2002) Routes to remembering: the brains behind superior memory. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 90-95.

Paivio, A. Yuille, J. C., & Rogers, T. B. (1969) Noun imagery and meaningfulness in free and serial recall. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 79, 509-514.

Ross, J. & Lawrence, K. A. (1968) Some observations on memory artifice. Psychonomic Science, 13, 107-108.