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Peg words
The phonic system
Forum romanum
Acronyms, rhymes, songs
Mental imagery



        You can use memory aids a.k.a. mnemonic devices to ease recall of complex information. A careful combination of mnemonics and a multimedia-enabled learning software like VTrain can boost your learning!

How do I memorize...
. . .
  ...lists of numbers? - The pegword method is quick and easy to use.
The phonic system is much more powerful.
. . .
  ...lists of material objects or actions? - The pegword method.
The Forum Romanum method.
. . .
. . .
  ...lists of abstract concepts? - Acronyms, rhymes, and songs.
. . .
. . .
. . .
  ...formulas and complex data? - Mental imagery.
. . .
. . .

Peg words

        This method is useful for memorizing lists of objects, actions, or numbers.

It consists in allocating to each cipher 0-9 an object resembling its
shape. When you want to memorize a list, you create a mental image with the sequence of objects assigned to the corresponding digits.

There are many possible allocations, but the following may work:

elephant trunk
tennis racket
  doughnut, egg
candle, pencil, arrow, church tower
trident, ear
pregnant woman
hatchet, ax, boomerang, fishing-rod, hammer
glasses, young woman

Be careful with your choices: a tadpole, for instance, could be assigned to 6 and 9 alike.

A variant of this method uses
rhyming words instead of objects reminding of the shapes of the figures 0-9. You probably know the rhyme "one is a bun, two is a shoe, three is a tree, four is a door, five is a hive, six are sticks, seven is heaven, eight is a gate, nine is a line, ten is a hen".

The Phonic System

        Numbers (e.g. telephone numbers, birthdays, and historical dates) are usually memorized by way of some mathematical pattern you find in them, but such a method results in mistakes more often than not.

Here we propose a method that will allow you to convert any number into a sentence (words are easier to retain). Its origin can be traced back to the mid-1600s.
For example, you would memorize the sentence "The lazy dog jumps over the big brown fox" instead of the number 15017639084097942870.

The allocation table

  Consider the following allocation system between ciphers and consonant letters:

  7 8 9   K / G / KH F / V P / B
  4 5 6 -> R L J / CH / SH
  1 2 3   T / D / TH N M
     0     S / Z  

S and Z are assigned to the figure 0; T, D and TH are assigned to the figure 1, and so on.

N.B. The paired consonants in this table are pronounced in a similar way. (Most are pairs of unvoiced / voiced variants, with the addendum of SH, KH and TH.)

Please take into account that these consonants must be understood as
phonems, i.e. the sound, not the typographic character is meant in each case. Thus, "G" refers to the sound in give and guest, not in giraffe, and "K" may stand for the written "c" in cast, "F" for the final sound in laugh, and so on. On the other hand, "KH" stands for the final sound in loch, and "TH" for both the sound in father and its variant in thin.

This table incorporates the most common consonant sounds in the most widely spoken languages, so it need not be modified for users with a mother tongue other than English.
Note also that the sound "H" was omitted.

Master the allocation table

  You can learn all items in the allocation table easily with VTrain, the Vocabulary Trainer:

- Create a flashcard for each cipher and the matching letter(s).

Similarities are obvious for 1 = T, 2 = N, and 3 = M. You can figure out images that suggest the other assignments. If you are not familiar with the concepts of unvoiced and voiced consonants, create separate flashcards in VTrain for 1 = D, 7 = G, etc.

- You can also attach sound files to the flashcards that fit those images.

How do I use it?

  Once you know the table (UK: off) by heart, it is easy to create sentences from a number:

1.   Choose a suitable consonant for each digit of the number. 
- - -
    Keep in mind that the consonants stand for sounds, not for characters. In particular, x = KS = 70, double consonants are simplified, and no cipher is assigned to the letter h nor to any vowel.
- - -
1756 (the year Mozart was born) = T K L SH  or  D G L CH, etc.
- - -
2.   Build a word or sentence from the resulting consonants.
- - -

For instance:

1756 = ticklish
- - -

Although there are many monosyllabic words in English to choose from, it is sometimes difficult to find a meaningful word. In such a case, you can do one of the following:

(A) Use a table of ready words matching longer numbers (e.g. 10 = toss, 11 = dad, 12 = tan, 13 = tomb, etc.). The drawback of this is that you end up using the same words all the time, and the resulting sentences are not likely to make much sense.

(B) Try 2Know (Freeware). This software will produce a list of words matching any number you input (in accordance to the phonic system).

(C) Instead of assigning a consonant to each digit, you could assign a word starting with the matching consonant. This makes it much easier to find suitable words. For instance,

1756 = the Grace of the Lord Showed [the first digit "1" is left out]
- - -

Finally, embed the resulting expression in the context in which the number appeared. The fancier, the better:

- Baby Mozart is ticklish.
- Mozart was born, and the
Grace of the Lord Showed.

If the list of numbers you need to memorize is long, you can embed numbers coded this way in the mnemonic story in a flashcard.


Forum Romanum

        Also known as Loci method. ['Loci': plural of Latin 'locus', "place".] This method can be traced back to ancient Rome, where it was used for public speeches.

Suppose you need to memorize a list. Visualize a place you know well, e.g. a room or a street. Imagine you go through it in a specific direction. Allocate each entry of the list to an object in that environment and visualize the scene again. Actually, this is a variation of the
mental imagery method.

Sadly, the applicability of this method is limited by the fact that you can employ each environment just once, because else interferences are likely to come up.

Acronyms, rhymes, songs.

        Everybody has used this kind of memory device some time. You form an artificial word or a sentence from parts of the collection of words you want to memorize. A dictionary and a thesaurus can help you a great deal.

By the way, you can enhance the effectivity of the resulting sentence by
mental imagery.


  For example, you can use the initials of a word sequence to form an artificial word or a sentence. (In many cases, you will have to resort the sequence first.)

The following French verbs require the auxiliary verb être (to be) instead of avoir (to have):

Devenir - Revenir - Mourir - Retourner - Sortir - Venir - Aller - Naître - Descendre - Entrer - Rentrer - Tomber - Rester - Arriver - Monter - Partir - Passer

Did you get it? The initials read "Dr. & Mrs. Vandertrampp". This is a widely known mnemonic of unknown origin.

Inventing sayings
(with juggled words)

  Acronyms assume you already know the data well. You may also use words that sound similar to the original ones to form sentences, and try to make them the less absurd the better.

The following are branches of the aorta abdominalis:

Arteria phrenica inferior
Truncus coeliacus
Arteria suprarenalis media
Arteria mesenterica superior
Arteria renalis
Arteria ovarica / Arteria testicularis
Arteria mesenterica inferior
Arteriae lumbales

This method is frequently applied for learning the different series of the periodic table of chemical elements.

Inventing poems
and songs

  You can write new lyrics for an existing song. This method is highly effective. Don't forget your sense of humor!

The following example shows some of the German prepositions governing the dative case. These verses are alternative lyrics to the well-known children's song "Frère Jacques":

  New lyrics Original lyrics  
  Aus bei mit nach,
Aus bei mit nach,
seit von zu
seit von zu
regieren doch den Dativ
regieren doch den Dativ
dumme Kuh!
dumme Kuh!
Are you sleeping,
Are you sleeping,
brother John?
brother John?
All the bells are ringing,
All the bells are ringing,
ding, dang, dong.
ding, dang, dong.

You can also create a new work. Then, it is quite important to use rhymes, because they enhance recalling. The following verse is quite popular, being one of many, though. The number of letters of the words reproduce the first digits of the number pi:

  Now I know a spell unfailing
An artful charm for tasks availing
Intricate results entailing
Not in too exacting mood.
(Poetry is pretty good).
Try the talisman,
Let be adverse ingenuity.

Mental imagery

        This holds for (almost) all of us: Stories are retained far better than plain data. If you use your imagination to produce new, lively stories from 'dry' information, half the work is done!

Mental imagery deals with mental experiences integrated primarily by visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (body motion) components.

By mental imagery, you can create mnemonic stories in order to fit complex data structures. A mnemonic story can be very sophisticated and simple though, since you can integrate other memory aids in it (coding, progressive abstraction).

Design of effective
mnemonic stories

  Sensory attributes
It is advisable to take into account one's own tendencies as to
visual, auditory, and kinesthetic aspects of mental representations when a mnemonic story is being outlined. Mental images can also contain references to other kinds of perceptions (tactile, olfative, temperature, etc.) and be more or less imbued with emotions (e.g. disgust).

It has been argued that the more
bizarre a mnemonic story is, the easier to remember it will be. Anyway, there is no experimental evidence that supports this assertion. Using allusions to sexual and other bodily functions and black humor may be effective. Notwithstanding, it happens much like to some TV spots: its absurdity must not be gratuitous. (Sometimes everybody talks about a spot and nobody can remember what brand was actually advertised.) That is why you should make sure that the sensory attributes of the elements of the story match their nature (e.g. cheese stinks, roses prick, mud stains).

Linear discourse
Make the elements of the story follow a single thread: each element must grow out of the preceding one. This way you can be sure you will not forget any of them later.

On the other hand, elements of a drama provided imprinted with a human personality (harboring even intentions and other feelings) are much nimbler, more suggestive and hence easier to retain than 'abstract' entities.
For abstract concepts, use
visual symbols wherever possible. Tradition delivers allegoric symbols for many abstract ideas: e.g. the justice is represented as Justitia, a blindfolded woman carrying a sword and a pair of scales.

"Weak" and ambiguous elements
Semantically 'weak' components are easily overlooked, and ambiguous ones are easily misunderstood. Hence, both must be given prominence.
In particular, negative particles should be handled with care, since a negative sentence is easily mistaken for its affirmative opposite. The same holds for minus signs in mathematical formulas, for example.

Sample stories

  The quality of such stories depends entirely on your creative skills. Consider the following:

The Shopping List

Suppose you need to memorize a shopping list:

  1 lb.
1/2 lb.
1 L
1 lb. tomatoes
3 big onions
1/2 lb. flour
1 L red wine

Now, here's a story. (It's not very funny, but that'll do.)

You arrive at the vegetable counter of your supermarket. There, you stumble and fall with your hands into a basket full of overripe, almost rotten tomatoes.
(Hear the smacky sound of the bursting tomatoes.) You stand up and stain your shirt. You hear somebody laugh, turn around and see three triplets. Their heads look like big onions ('personification'), and they stink just like onions. (Feel the smell and how your eyes begin to water.) The stench so disgusting that you run away, but in your excitement you bump into a man carrying a sack of flour. The sack tears and you are covered with flour. The man gets very upset and starts shouting at you. He complains that only half a pound of flour is left in the sack (we highlight this part because it is a 'weak element' that could be mistaken for one pound, which is kind of a default value). In order to placate him, you treat him to a glass of wine at the pub around the corner.

The Length of a Circumference

The length of a circumference is
L = 2 p r , where p = 3,1415926..., and r is the radius of the circumference. Now, imagine a stack of two pies (p) in and a rat (r) ('personification') nibbling at it. Make sure to imagine the smell of the pie and the sound the rat makes.

Take care when constructing memory aids: you cannot apply this rule to the area of a circle (
A = p ), since you have to include a reference to the other operation involved (exponentiation) (a 'weak' element).

The Sine of a Sum of Angles

Consider the following formulas from trigonometry:

sin (a + b) = sin (a) cos (b) + cos (a) sin (b)
cos (a + b) = cos (a) cos (b) - sin (a) sin (b)

The first of the two is easy to learn. On the right side of the equation, sines and cosines appear combined, and the plus sign is much like a 'default value'.
But if we try to retain the second formula in reference to the first one, using vague clues like "it's just the opposite", we are likely to get into trouble at the latest when we come across the following one:

cos (a-b) = cos (a) cos (b) + sin (a) sin (b)

To create a mnemonic story for learning these formulas, we could imagine the cosine as a caste of mischievous creatures
('personification') trying to spoil the sines' fun: in the second formula, the cosines cos (a) cos (b) push their way forward and dig into the ribs of sin (a) (digging represents the minus sign, which is a 'weak' element).

(The third formula can be obtained from the second the same way as the formula for sin (a-b) is obtained from the first one, namely changing the middle sign, so it needs no mnemonic.)

Of course, all mnemonic stories in a subject matter domain should be coherent. Following our example, the cosine should always be the bad guy in the movie.
    Updated: 2008 January 17
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