Everyone needs to remember something. Whether it's your nephew’s birthdays, the periodic table of elements or the different names of pre-eminent Indian scientists. Everyone needs to know something. But how do we take this information in? How do we make it stick? In a world led by technology, how can you ensure that the data you need is in the place that you can rely on most: your head? Well, I thought I'd write a bit about the techniques that changed my life: mnemonics.
Information that needs to be remembered comes in different forms and the main differential is determined by the question: what is our current level of understanding with the data we are attempting to save?
Pre-registered information is data that you have interacted with previously, but which needs to be remembered in a certain order or in a way that ensures you can recall it confidently. An example of this is the planets in our solar system.
Almost everybody knows the names of the planets somewhere in their mind, but not everybody could recall them all without hesitation and even fewer people would be able to recall them in their order of distance from the Sun. The way the information is stored in our heads naturally is a bit jumbled and vague.
This is why mnemonics for the order of the planets are so popular: we’re not using the memory techniques to retain new information, but we are relying on those mnemonic ‘clues’ to give an order to the information that is already in our minds.
When we hear, for example, ‘My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas’ our brains are remembering the mnemonic itself (the sentence above) and translating the information on the fly to convert the sentence into data based on the first letters. My = Mercury, Very = Venus, Eager = Earth, etc. This works because we are already familiar with the subject of the mnemonic. But what if we’re not?
With information that is brand new, sometimes with words we’ve never even heard, we need to translate it to something familiar before we can create a mnemonic. If someone who didn’t speak Indian was trying to remember some eminent Indian scientists, such as C.V. Raman, Homi J. Bhabha, Satyendra Nath Bose, Srinivasa Ramanujan and Meghnad Saha, a mnemonic of ‘Could Venomous Rattlesnakes Hold Juggling Balls? Said Numerous Builders Supplying Routine Manual Services’ is hardly going to help.
What we need is to feed in more clues, so that every step of the mnemonic sends connections to the memory and allows us to recall it through images, rhymes and clues. In the case of C.V. Raman, we could imagine a CV (as in a curriculum vitae) held by a pack of ramen noodles.
For Homi J. Bhabha we can use Homer J Simpson holding onto a sheep or a ‘barbar’ian or a baby to give us the clue of the ‘bhabha’ sound. Here, even though your mind may see ‘Homer J Simpson’ as a full character and you might assume you won’t make the leap from that image to Homi J, what will happen is that your memory will be jogged to find the information that is held within that image. We know what Indian sounds like even if we don’t speak it, so your brain will do some of that work automatically for you. Also, the fact that you are trying to remember this name, means that it will occupy a certain place in your memory, even if it’s not particularly strong. The odds of your brain recalling that memory with the clue of this image which translates it is quite high.
Dr Satyendra Nath Bose(Sat-e-yen-drah-nath-boast (without the ‘T’ at the end of ‘boast’)). Trickier – but when we break these words down syllable by syllable, we can see the potential. What I would do with a difficult name like this is attack it with several mnemonic techniques at once. In multi-syllabic rhyme, Satyendra isn’t a far cry from a ‘pack of Splenda’ (as in the American sugar substitute sachets for hot drinks). So I would probably have Ian Beale sat down on a sofa with a pack of Splenda (Ian Beale on a sofa is to remind me of the sound ‘Sat-e-yen’ from ‘Sat Ian’ and the TV show he’s from, ‘Eastenders’, is close to the end of the name: ‘endra’).
Nath Bose is what we’re left with. I would have a doctor wearing a lab coat with a calculator looking at a bottle of milk, playing music from a portable speaker. That’s two rhymes with ‘Lab coats’ and ‘Lactose’ for the sounds ‘Nath Bose’ with the calculator to remind me of ‘Math’ to get close to the first sound and the portable speaker being the last name ‘Bose’ as in the speaker brand, Bose. Now… That sounds complex, but these things happen automatically in your head. If you really make those connections then, with a bit of revision, they will stick and it’s not a great effort to recall them.
Two more names. Let’s do Meghnad Sahafirst. Again, we break it down to a granular level: ‘meg-nad-Sa-ha’. My mind jumps, initially, to the film ‘The Meg’ with Jason Statham – a giant shark (a Megalodon) attacks a bunch of people. A real mess. So , I have my first image: the Meg leaping out of the sea and biting. Then, we have ‘nad’ to me, nads are testicles, so a nad is a singular testicle. So, ’ve got a Megalodon biting a giant testicle. Brilliant. Saha? Well, how about when the shark lands, it lands in the Sahara and Alan Partridge is there shouting ‘Aha!!’ as he is wont to do. ‘Saha’ra + ‘aha’ = Saha! And now we have our name.
Finally, we have our biggest challenge yet: Srinivasa Ramanujan. Sri-knee-vase-uh-Rah-man-u-jahn. Clearly quite a challenge, but none of these are too big to tackle. ‘Sri’ is like ‘Sri’ Lanka, so I imagine Sri Lanka on a globe (also, perhaps its proximity to India will be a helpful reminder of where he’s from). For ‘Knee-vase-uh’I imagine that I’m standing next to said globe and my knee knocks off a vase and I make an ‘uh’ sound in panic, so that’s Sri, knee, vase, UH!!!! ‘Rah-man’ – again, we can use ramen noodles for this imagery, maybe that’s what the vase was full of and they spill out everywhere? ‘U-Jahn’, I would imagine a friend of mine named John (since the sound is so similar) sitting on a toilet (john, again, in American slang is ‘toilet’), holding the U-bend at the back. Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Now we can take ‘Can Venomous Rattlesnakes Hold Juggling Balls? Said Numerous Builders Supplying Routine Manual Service’ and we have all our names, seeing as we are now familiar with the information: C. V. Raman. Homi J. Bhabha, Satyendra Nath Bose, Srinivasa Ramanujan and Meghnad Saha. And the best part is that these things don’t need to be revised constantly, they will stick in your mind because there are so many neural routes that have access to the information: images, phonetics, rhymes and wordplay will all nudge you to recall the information you need.
The best thing about mnemonics is that, after a while, you don't need them anymore. I can name these scientists now without using any of the techniques mentioned because the information has now become part of the hardware of my brain. The data is still there, it's just pre-translated for you. Isn't that amazing?
Mnemonics are incredible for retaining information, and even though they seem like something you only need when you're young, they can actually help you throughout your life for all manner of important things. If you're someone who's passionate about learning don't forget the power of mnemonics, it's lasted over 2,000 years for a reason!