The role of mnemonics in the different memory processes
To improve the attention and selection process you can practice concentration,
both intensity and stamina (some form of meditation is often used to achieve
In this process we also include everything that has to do with creating an environment
suitable for concentration. This includes external factors such as avoiding
any disturbances and being given new information in a way that is clear and
that you are comfortable with. It also includes internal factors such as being
in good health, rested, relaxed and without any feeling of (negative) stress
or pressure. In this process is also something seldom mentioned: the question
of what you are supposed to pay attention to. The reason this is so rarely included
in any mnemonic guides is of course that it is very subject specific.
Just to be clear: mnemonics means the deliberate use of ways to improve these
factors. We can all concentrate more or less and what we do without having to
actually think about it is not included in mnemonics. It is true that continuous
use of mnemonic techniques will incorporate these into your normal thinking.
However, when that happens, they are no longer mnemonics.
The encoding process is where you find all the famous mnemonic tricks
that make up so much of the self-help literature on this subject.
So how can we make this process as effective as possible? We start by making
the information we must remember as simple and logical as possible.
By organizing the information we lessen the amount to be remembered. We do
this by distilling from our sources what we actually have to remember, we look
for patterns and we decide how much of what we have left that actually has to
be memorized. Not all of the original information needs to be encoded, you just
need enough to remind you. Once you have found the memorized cues, you can often
take it from there and remember the rest. So how do we encode what we have left?
Because we are different, the methods most effective to us differ as well.
But there are still some general principles that seem to apply to practically
everyone. One of those is that it is easier to imagine something concrete. A
concept or anything else abstract is transferred into something concrete, which
is remembered (concrete means you are able to sense it; see it, hear it, smell
it...). In this and the other encoding situations imagination plays a big part.
Another basic concept is that it is always easier to remember something that
has a clear connection to something you already know. Association with something
familiar gives you a specific place to put the new stuff, a place where it is
easy to find later. In order to make the associations as rich and effectual
as possible, it helps to use all senses. Not just see an image but think about
what it sounds like or what it smells like, or anything you might imagine. It
is also good to attach some form of emotion or mood (if that doesn't come by
itself); an emotional event is easier to remember than one you don't really
A note about automatic encoding (also called "chunking"): In practically
all aspects of life we use what is called implicit knowledge to automate tasks
we perform regularly. For example, you do not have to think about how to walk,
how to talk or how to read. It comes automatically. As mentioned above, this
kind of simplification of input is not included in the term mnemonics.
Storage itself is not subject to mnemonic techniques, but the result
of the other processes.
The retrieval is, because it is the decoding process, inevitably linked
to the encoding process. Whatever you have associated with the memorized information
is your key, so that is what you use in finding it again. If there is still
something you cannot remember, the only thing you can do is search for it.
If you have something "on the tip of your tongue", that is if you know you
have the information but cannot access it, you can in a limited way still look
for cues. If it is a specific word, like a name, you can look for it by trying
to start the word with the letters of the alphabet, one by one. Hopefully you
will be reminded while trying the correct letter.
This sort of retrieval help, which is really just a form of systematic search,
is only the last resort and not very effective. When developing the mnemonic
techniques, all the work goes into the attention and selection and
encoding process (in other words the input processes).