Mnemonic devices — like acronyms, chunking, and rhymes — work by tapping into how the brain naturally stores data.
If you’re like most people, you probably get frustrated when you can’t remember the name of your new co-worker, a friend’s phone number, or even why you walked into a room.
But memory shortages can feel even more frustrating when you have to recall large amounts of information, such as the state capitals or the bones in the human body.
This is where mnemonic devices can come in handy — as tricks to easily memorize things.
You’ve used a mnemonic device if you’ve ever used a rhyme or a song to help you memorize something. It’s simply a fancy word for a memorization tool.
Through various tricks, mnemonic devices can help you remember anything from phone numbers to long lists to other things that would be otherwise difficult to remember.
There are several types of mnemonic devices, and many of them overlap in how they work. Below are five of the most common types of mnemonic devices:
- acronyms and acrostics
- method of loci
- songs and rhymes
Acronyms and acrostics
An acronym is a word created from the first letter of a group of words or names. For instance: HOMES is an acronym for the five Great Lakes:
Some words we commonly use as “stand-alone” words are acronyms. For example:
- radar (radio detection and ranging)
- laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation)
- scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)
- gif (graphics interchange format)
An acronym doesn’t even need to be a “real” word — as long as it sounds like one. For instance, many government agencies use acronyms, such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) or NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
You can also use acronyms as mnemonic devices in day-to-day situations like grocery shopping.
For example, if you need to remember to buy pasta, apples, cilantro, and eggs at the store and you don’t have a way to write a shopping list, you may easily forget some random items. Creating the acronym (and word) “pace” from the items’ first letters and thinking “pace” as you walk through the grocery store may help you remember all the items you need:
An acrostic is a similar mnemonic device, but it can be a sentence or a whole phrase instead of just one word. For example, you’ve likely used a phrase similar to “My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas” to help you remember the nine planets and their order in our solar system:
Association is a fairly easy technique to help you remember new information. The idea behind it is that it’s easier to remember new information when you link it to something you already know well.
For example, if you have a new co-worker named Todd and an uncle with the same name, you could imagine your co-worker with glasses, a mustache, and a pencil behind his ear — like your uncle Todd — to help you remember your co-worker’s name.
Similarly, suppose you’re trying to remember that the scientist who invented calculus and discovered the laws of gravity was Isaac Newton. In that case, you could imagine your friend Isaac eating (and dropping) a Fig Newton while doing math.
The stranger and sillier the scenario, the more likely you’ll remember it.
Chunking is a mnemonic device in which you break down information into bite-sized “chunks.” Two common examples of chunking are phone numbers and Social Security numbers. Most people divide both of these long numbers into three sections.
Chunking allows the brain to memorize more information than usual. According to the late psychologist George A. Miller, the average short-term memory capacity is about seven items, plus or minus two, depending on the person. Miller also suggested that verbal short-term memory capacity is determined by the number of chunks stored in memory.
Chunking comes in handy when memorizing random items, such as a password. For instance, trying to memorize P3850tf21 would be quite difficult. But if you break it down: P38-50-tf21, it becomes a lot easier.
So why does chunking allow more items to be stored in the brain? Research from 2021 suggests that chunking may be a long-term memory function. Therefore, chunking allows people to tap into their long-term memory function to extend the capability of their short-term memory.
Method of loci
The method of loci — sometimes called the “memory palace technique” — involves remembering items based on their locations.
According to legend, the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos temporarily excused himself from a large banquet to speak with someone outside. Soon after he left, a disaster ensued, and the entire structure collapsed on everyone inside. The scene was chaotic, and even family members could not identify the bodies.
However, once the debris was cleared, Simonides was able to help identify the dead correctly because he remembered exactly where each person had been sitting. This story is commonly retold as an example of how to recall large groups of items.
For example, your grandmother has asked you to stop at the store to pick up five random items:
- a scented candle
- paper towels
- a purple flower pot
You don’t have any way to write down the list and need to memorize it.
To use the method of loci, try the following:
- Imagine an area you know very well, such as your home.
- Imagine each item’s exaggerated or silly form placed somewhere in your home.
In practice, this may look something like this:
- Imagine arriving at your front door and seeing a large flickering candle there.
- As you mentally walk inside your house, you “see” a pair of flip-flops hanging from the air conditioning vent.
- Then you imagine your brother holding a paper towel roll in the family photo on the wall in the entryway.
- You enter the kitchen and see a large honeycomb dripping with honey and swarming bees on the kitchen countertop.
- The honey is dripping into a purple flowerpot below.
Songs and rhymes
Songs and rhymes are very effective mnemonic devices. Most young children are taught to remember the entire alphabet — 26 random letters in a row — by reciting it in a simple rhyming tune.
Songs and rhymes work for adults as well. Just think of how easily you sing along when an old song comes on the radio.
Singing can help with many types of learning. Research from 2013 shows that a foreign language can be more easily memorized when put into a song. A 2021 study also indicates that singing may improve memory and well-being in people with dementia.
Research from 2019 shows that learning is more efficient when people use mnemonic devices. These memory tools work by tapping into how your brain naturally stores data.
Below are some of the advantages of using mnemonic devices:
- You become an active learner when you sort the information in a way you can remember.
- Mnemonic tools allow you to recall large amounts of information that would be incredibly difficult to remember.
- You’re able to quickly retrieve information from your long-term memory.
Mnemonic devices are useful learning aids when memorizing large amounts of information.
Using memory-boosting tools, such as loci, chunking, or rhyming, can make learning much easier and even fun. So you don’t have to despair if you’re being tested on the state capitals or the periodic table.