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> Another Mnemonic Technique
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Another Mnemonic Technique

Remember I mentioned, while talking about rooms, the mnemonic technique of constructing rooms in one's mind? Well, here's another technique, one I recently thought up while driving.

The underlying idea is nothing new, just the usual method of figuring out a mental image that suggests the thing to be remembered (as in Dilbert: “Dee Alamo … darn, nothing!”). I've tried out this method occasionally, but have never found it very useful. The problem is that what I want to remember isn't normally, say, a person's name, but rather the fact that there was a person at all. In other words, I'm not trying to strengthen a single association, I'm trying to remember a whole collection of unrelated items.

So, as I said, I was driving, and I realized that what I needed was some way of organizing my mental images, of keeping track of how many I'd come up with. My first thought was to use the colors of the spectrum, to have the first image contain a red object, the second an orange one, and so on. On second thought, that seemed limiting … what if I wanted to remember more than seven objects? Having thought of one series, though, it was a small step to another: the alphabet. In fact, I figured, why not use both? I could make a nice set of pigeonholes by putting letters across the top and colors down the left side.

So, that's what I did, and it's worked amazingly well for me so far: I've remembered three or four lists of perhaps six items each, without losing a single item.

By the way, I assume you know the mnemonic for the colors of the spectrum, “Roy G. Biv”. I use it myself, only I like to combine indigo and violet into just one color, purple. Having two shades of purple seems like hair-splitting to me, while combining them gives a nice ordering of the six primary and secondary colors.

As examples, here are a few items from my very first list. (In case you're wondering, no, I didn't just remember these, I wrote them down as soon as I stopped for a break.)

  • A pair of bright red Apples pushing toward each other, representing the idea of personal space, and reminding me of a whole cluster of thoughts about how it applies to driving.
  • A red Brain, representing the mnemonic technique itself.
  • A red Crayon filling in an area in a coloring book, representing the next point I'm going to make.

Once I'd come up with this whole scheme, it occurred to me that I'd probably gone overboard, that twenty-six pigeonholes would probably have been more than enough. Now that I've used it, though, it's clear to me that the inclusion of color is key, even if I never actually use any color other than red. Why is the inclusion of color key? I don't claim to have the definitive answer, but I do have a few ideas.

First of all, I should point out that when I make these mental images, I only apply color to the main object, the one that carries the letter association. As a result, the color picks out the main object and makes it vivid. (Red, as it happens, is particularly suitable for this purpose.) The rest of the image is black and white—or, rather, “not even black and white”, since I simply don't attach color information to the rest of the image. (See Consciousness Explained for more about mental images, and Understanding Comics for the idea that mental images are closer to cartoons than to representational art.)

Since it's somewhat obscure, let me also point out that it was Pauli who once described a particularly bad scientific article as “not even wrong”.

It isn't just that the color picks out the object that carries the letter association; it can also help strengthen the association, as in the first example above. On the other hand, it doesn't necessarily help, as the other two examples show.

That's all I have to say about the inclusion of color. In fact, that's all I have to say, period.

* * *

The main problem I've had with the above technique is that when I try to remember a very long series of items, I almost invariably lose some of the ones in the middle. Recently, though, I had an idea. If the images were linked (by association) to one another as well as to the letters of the alphabet, it would be harder to have an isolated failure.

So, I've tried creating horizontal associations as well as vertical ones, and it does seem to help a bit. The horizontal associations end up forming a kind of story, the kind you get in dreams, where one thing leads to another, but the whole doesn't make any sense. For the list above, for example, I might imagine zooming in on one of the Apples to see its Brain, and then seeing the neurons in Brain firing, making an arm draw with a Crayon … even though apples don't have arms, or brains for that matter.

I think the idea of creating an associative story is actually a standard technique for remembering a series of items, I just hadn't thought of it in this context before.


  See Also

  On Walking
  Resistor Color Code

@ November (2000)
o July (2002)