Tell a Story to Link Memories

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

Everyone loves a good story. You use stories as a way to learn, teach, and pass the time. You can also use stories to link information you want to remember.

The link system: Remembering a list without paper and pencil

The link system is a mnemonic technique that helps you link memories of serial-type information, such as lists of words. As the name implies, this system helps you link a chain of information to help you remember it. This system is sometimes called the chain method because your task is to chain together the items on the list like links on a chain.

Suppose you have to run to the grocery store to buy food for dinner. You frantically open the glove box for a pad and pencil because halfway to the store, you realize you forgot your list. Alas, you find only a torn map, a crumpled candy wrapper, and the sunglasses you broke last week.

For a moment, you forget what you decided to make for dinner. Then it comes to you as your stomach growls: You had decided to make fettuccini with clam sauce. Now you remember that you have to buy olive oil, fettuccini, parsley, garlic, clams, and Parmesan cheese.

You decide to chain together the items into some kind of image that you’re able to remember when you get to the store. A picture comes to mind of Uncle Fred (for “freduccini”) sitting under an olive tree (olive oil) with parsley growing as high as grass. Uncle Fred is chopping garlic, grating Parmesan, and storing those ingredients in clamshells.

As you walk into the market, that picture draws you into the entire chain, which links together the items on your shopping list. (Now all you have to do is remember how to cook it.)

The story system: Weaving a story to recall a list

The story system of mnemonics is similar to the link system in the preceding section but a little more elaborate. This technique requires more time than the link system. To use it, you develop a story about what you have to memorize by associating each item in the list with logical elements that form a story. Your story should weave together the list items in the order you want to remember them. Those items should connect with one another in a meaningful way as the story unfolds. That way, when you remember the story, you remember your list.

The more ridiculous the story you create, the more memorable it is.

The story system works best when the list contains abstract words that are harder to visualize. However, it’s less effective than the link system for longer lists because it’s more difficult to arrange a long list of items into a meaningful story than to link them together with basic associations.

With the link system, you use primarily visual images, whereas you may not need them with the story system. But if you’re able to develop visual imagery within your story, it’s easier to remember. Visualization strengthens both these mnemonic techniques.

Imagine that you’ve been awakened by a furious storm. When you go downstairs to make breakfast, you notice that the ceiling just above one of the window frames is leaking. You surmise that the storm, with its near-sideways pounding rain, tore up some flashing on the roof, allowing some rainwater to seep down into the wall. The water dripped all over the windowsill and onto the carpet. You check the garage for something you can use to plug the spot but find nothing suitable.

You hop into the car to go to the hardware store and drive faster than you should through the flooded streets. As you drive, you think up a list of items to buy, but you have no pencil and paper. You come up with the following story to take with you into the hardware store:

Mr. Moosely found that he was out of denture adhesive (caulking), so he used one of his finest steak knives (putty knife) to mince up dinner. But he worried that mashing up the minced food with his gums would result in food dribbling out of his mouth and onto his new shirt. Therefore, he took out a plastic bib (plastic sheet) that was left in his apartment the last time his young grandson was visiting. He realized that the bib was far too small, and he could hardly tie it around his neck. Mr. Moosely knew that if he used this small bib, food would fall onto the table or floor. He managed to find a rectangular container (drip pan) from the cabinet. It was only then that he was able to enjoy his minced meal.