My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pints
Last year I had a thought: mnemonics. Mnemonics almost seem old hat now or useless, outmoded. Especially in a world where we have such easy and quick access to information, why bother trying to remember things when you can just Google it? When I think back to my early experience of mnemonics, it was My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pints for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.
Great. Very helpful. But how would it feel to put mnemonics on steroids, send them to the gym five days a week and have them be your personal bodyguard? Surreal? Fair enough.
With this type of multisyllabic rhyme we can use the entirety of the word, phrase, name or number we want to remember to rhyme, with something else in its entirety, so that the mnemonic ‘clue’ is less of a hint and more a look at the answer sheet. To use a previous example, I always used to forget the name Emily Davison, until I looked at the word and a rhyme appeared in my head.
From that moment on, whenever I am called upon to remember that name, my mind shoots to the rhyme which pinball-knocks it over to the name. And the same with Tippi Hedren, the actress from The Birds, with ‘Smith and Wesson’. Edith Cavell with ‘Keenan and Kel’. All of these names I didn’t know can now be safely stored next to their rhyming counterparts, because by stapling information we don’tknow to information we doknow, we can anchor that new data. All we’re doing is translating data into images or sounds we are already familiar with.
That’s also how I learned 100 digits of pi in practically no time at all. I didn’t need to remember ‘3.141’ because I already knew that’s how it started (not to brag, I’m just incredible), so I started with the next part, grouping all the numbers into groups of 2digits so that there are only 50 pieces of data to memorise, not 100: 59. Fifty nine. I analysed the letters and the syllables and the words and clocked that fifty nine rhymes with ‘fishing line’, making sure to start the rhyme with an ‘F’ (Fishing) so I knew it was fiftynine, not sixtynine, ending with an ‘N’ (liNE) sound so I remembered it was fifty nine, not fifty five, as the assonance sounds quite similar (this rarely is a problem).
So now I have an image in my head of myself with a fishing line. The next two digits: 26. Twenty six: Jelly fish. Now on the end of my fishing line is a jelly fish. 53. Fifty three: Figurine, again, an object beginning with an ‘F’ to remind me it’s fifty, not sixty. So, I’m fishing on my fishing line, catch a jelly fishand an action man figurinehangs off its tentacle things. That simple image is very easy to remember, but through the power of rhymes, we’ve remembered 3 sets of data: 59, 26, 53. Six digits in no time. I use this for phone numbers, for addresses, for lines I need to remember, for everything that I need a safeguard for.
The reason I think this works so well is because your brain is making several connections at once. Not only are you making a rhyme with something you’re familiar with as an anchor, but the way that your brain has to engage with the word on a granular level in order to create or ‘clock’ the rhyme that goes along with it, means that there are two separate neural pathways being created: one that has engaged with the word down to the syllables and letters and stuck it in there tightly, and one that has created a rhyme to knock you into the right direction should it escape your immediate grasp.
What that first pathway means is that the word, name, construct, number that was originally foreign to you is now something that you have engaged with on an almost molecular level, so of course you’re going to be better at remembering it from now on. And if you don’t immediately recall it, there’s the rhyme for you to knock you back on track. This consistently works effectively.
This is just one way that multisyllabic rhymes can help us to engage with our language in a much more complex way than traditional rhyme would ever be capable of. This is how we can bring mnemonics into the 21stcentury in a way that isn’t one learned universal memory technique, but rather a unique, personal set of codes that students, academics, anybody can create and engage with, that works.