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Why Mnemonics Are So Effective
By Judy Parkinson,
Author of i before e (except after c)

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Where would we be without mnemonics?  We use them all the time, probably without realizing.  Doctors and dentists invent funny phrases for vital workings of the body.  Taxi drivers have signposts all over town to remind them how to get from A to B.  Actors learn their lines with the rhymes and rhythms of Shakespeare.  Chefs need to know the difference between desert and dessert.  (A dessert has two ss or two sugars, so it's sweet, not dry and sandy).

Quite simply mnemonics are instant reminders for the stuff we need to remember every day, from unmissable anniversaries to passwords for websites to where we left the car keys.  

Mnemonics come in all shapes and sizes -- rhymes, phrases and tunes.  Everyone knows the rhyme: 'Thirty days hath September, April, June and November, . . . ' to remember the lengths of the months.  'Spring Forward, Fall Back' when we change the clocks.  All musicians know: 'Every Good Boy Deserves Favour' for the lines on the treble stave.  And of course: 'I before E except after C' is a tried and tested spelling mnemonic, which rather irritatingly has a few exceptions such as weird, neighbor and protein among others.  

We all had to learn our ABCs, our 123s and our rainbow colours: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, when we were young and learning was fun.  I learned the alphabet using pictures of apples, bats and cats.  Today kids sing the ABC song to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

Why commit all this stuff to memory when these days we can Google it?  Modern technology is no use to a politician when he has just been introduced to the President of Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad.  The trick with new people is to say the name a couple of times during conversation.  If the name is unpronounceable, does it sound like anything?  In this case, 'I'm a dinner jacket.' 

There's nothing new about mnemonics.  They were invented about 500 years BC, allegedly by Simonides of Ceos, a Greek poet.  He was booked to recite an after dinner poem to celebrate an Olympic wrestling victory.  Just as Simonides stepped outside for some air, disaster struck; the roof of the dining hall collapsed, killing everyone inside, mangling their bodies beyond recognition.  Simonides, didn't come to the rescue, but he identified all the victims because he could recall the exact seating plan.  This tragedy marks the birth of 'place mnemonics', hence the expression 'in the first place'.
A couple of hundred years later Aristotle studied the art of memory and he created imaginary memory palaces with rooms in which he stored names, numbers, dates, constellations and Olympic champions.  He could take an imaginary stroll round his palace to recall anything he needed.

Thomas Harris' character, Hannibal Lecter, stalks the corridors and chambers of his mind palace; each space containing his grotesque memories.  For Clarice Starling's address, he goes to the 'address book' floor, and, out of the 26 hallways (one for each letter of the alphabet), he goes to the 19th (for S) and finds a door marked 'Starling'. All her data is stored inside.

We're all different and the best mnemonics are the ones we make up ourselves, whether we use memory palaces or fun phrases.  When I was studying geography A level one hot summer, I made up this nonsense word to memorize the names of the Pennine rivers:  SUNWACD.  The rivers Swale, Ure, Nidd, Wharfe, Aire, Calder and Don flow east into the River Ouse in Yorkshire.  This soon became Silly Uncle Ned Will Always Chase Ducks.

Make them personal, funny and rude (which often helps).  When we laugh, we relax and that increases our ability to remember.  Medical students learn a whole new vocabulary for vital functions of the body.  Imagine having to learn the names of the wrist bones: Scaphoid, Lunate, Triquetral, Pisiform, Hamate, Capitate, Trapezoid, Trapezium.  This young medic's phrase goes: Spectacularly Large, Tom's Privates Have Caused Tom Turmoil.  Tom's in her class, so don't ask!

Here's one I made up to remember the names of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune:  Matt's Violet Eyes Make Judy Stay Up Nights. 

The key to good memory is how stuff gets lodged in our minds in the first place -- recording.  If new facts are carefully filed or retained, we can retrieve them whenever we want.  It's impossible to find that all-important what's-its-name in the muddle of an untidy mind.  There is not one, but three Rs for remembering: Recording -- make the effort.  Retaining -- tidy storage.  Retrieving -- easy! 

Which reminds me, why is the word mnemonics itself such a difficult one to spell?  The only answer is to use a mnemonic phrase:  Monkey Nut Eating Means Old Nutshells In Carpet. 

2008  Judy Parkinson
Judy Parkinson is a graduate of Bristol University in England.  She is a producer of documentaries, music videos, and commercials, as well as the recipient of a Clio Award for a Greenpeace Advertisement.  Parkinson has published four books and has contributed to a show of life drawings at the Salon des Arts, Kensington.  She resides in London.
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