By American Geriatrics Society (AGS), Health in Aging Foundation

Not all mnemonic systems are equally effective for everyone. People are unique, and so are their needs and preferences. What you find useful as a mnemonic may be totally useless to your neighbor, and vice versa.

Picking a mnemonic that works for you

Choose the mnemonic that fits best with your experience. Doing so can increase your chances of remembering your memory-aid in the future.

To use mnemonic aids effectively, make sure the mnemonic follows these basic principles:

  • It gets your attention.
  • It contains an easy association.
  • It’s organized in such a way that it’s easy for you to remember.
  • It’s meaningful to you.

Use mnemonic techniques that suit you personally. Each person’s life experience is different, so people respond to images in their own ways. Consider the image of an onion dome on a Russian Orthodox church. The shape of that dome may symbolize a burning candle flame for a member of that faith and be associated with a candle lit in prayer for a family member. A person of another faith can look on the same dome and simply see an onion due to different life experiences.

Mnemonics that grab your attention and make remembering fun are always more effective. If your mnemonic is stale and boring, you tend to forget it. Make the mnemonic stand out by making it silly, funny, absurd, or even titillating.

Matching the mnemonic to what you want to remember

If your mnemonic has little to do with what you’re trying to remember, you’ll probably forget it. For example, say that you’re trying to remember that the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador have one of the widest ranges of unique animal species, including aquatic dragon lizards. The overall concept to remember is that the Galapagos Islands are a geographical location so remote that living species have evolved differently from others on the mainland.

You may think of mnemonics like these:

  • A knight fighting off a dragon just outside a medieval castle. You’re trying to associate the dragon lizards on the Galapagos Islands with the image of castles and knights. Hmm — sounds like a tangent. Remember, you’re trying to recall the Galapagos Islands, not the British Isles.
  • A huge number of gallon containers with dragon lizards crawling out. With the word gallon, you have a link to the word Galapagos Islands, and you’ve added the lizards. Maybe you want to organize your imagery in such a way to carry a broader point — namely, that a wide range of other animals also live on the Galapagos Islands. To remember this, you may want to envision the gallon containers brimming over with a wide variety of creatures, not just the dragon lizards.
  • Darwin’s boat, the Beagle, anchored in the bay, and hundreds of gallons of containers on shore, brimming over with life. Make sure that there’s personal meaning to the image you’re trying to remember. If you’re a history buff, an actual image from history (Darwin’s boat) may work.

Selecting a mnemonic that fits the situation

Although the visual mnemonic route (the link system) can potentially carry much more than just one image, occasionally utilizing an image may be impractical in some situations. Visual mnemonics take much more time for you to develop than do peg, link, or story mnemonics. When you don’t have a lot of time and need to develop a quick way to remember something important, using a peg may be wiser. For example, if you’re listening to a lecture and don’t have a notepad, you’ll end up in the dust when the lecturer moves on to another subject while you’re still trying to conjure up a visual image to help you remember the information later.

One of the advantages the peg system has is that you can select individual items from a list, whereas the link system relies on a sequence of associations. However, the pegs depend on prememorized word connections. The loci system also requires some upfront work to memorize location-connected links.

The more complex or abstract the noun, the more difficult it may be to associate with other words or ideas. The nouns are most useful in these mnemonic techniques if they’re concrete nouns you can visualize.

Whatever mnemonic system you use, make sure it’s flexible and meets the demands of what you’re trying to remember. Practice using mnemonics so you’re be versatile. Mnemonics have a long history and have been used successfully all over the world for many years. Make them work for you.