Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mnemosyne Flash Card Program

The Mnemosyne program is a free, open-source tool for memorising question/answer pairs. It uses a sophisticated algorithm to schedule the best time for a card to come up for review. Difficult cards that you tend to forget quickly will be scheduled more often, while Mnemosyne won't waste your time on things you remember well.

The software runs on Linux, Windows and Mac OS X and can be downloaded from the Mnemosyne project page. A discussion forum is available and users have contributed a variety of card decks for study, especially language. Personally, I prefer to prepare my own flash cards based on the material I am memorising.

An earlier flashcard program is SuperMemo. The web site has some very useful articles on spaced repetition and myths about memory and learning. Unfortunately the program's user interface looks awful.

I also trialled the Anki program but encountered some issues opening my card databases on a USB. After two failures I abandoned the program in favour of Mnemosyne. A flashcard program has to be used for many months and the research behind Mnemosyne appears more rigorous.

My Journey Through Africa

Yesterday I started the memorisation of the countries of Africa. By the end of this exercise I will be able to name every country number on the map above and its capital.

How good is your general knowledge of Africa? Write down the countries using the map above and give yourself a score out of 53! Click the map above for a larger view.

I have never travelled to Africa but I am fascinated by the variety of cultures, wildlife, climate, music, and deserts. I enjoyed Michael Palin's series on Sahara, and I am about to read Paul Theroux's book Dark Star Safari in which he describes a journey overland from Cairo to Cape Town. As I read the book my knowledge of the countries and capitals will be reinforced.

Two more books on my "Africa" list are Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun (published by Penguin in their inexpensive Popular Penguin series) and "Out of Africa" by Isak Dinesen.

Cardboard flashcards

In my previous post about memorising the countries of the world, I described making cardboard flash cards. Here is a photo of the collection I am currently memorising.

I printed the countries and capitals in a large font so I can read them without the aid of my glasses. This is most important for when I am on my walk! On the front of the card I write the peg number and the capital and country are pasted on the reverse side.

As I review the cards and think of associations, I jot notes in pencil under the country name. Lately I have not been writing a lot as the associations stick in my memory, which is the purpose of the exercise. My association skill generation is getting stronger.

Each day I add a few new cards to the ring, and remove the cards I have memorised. My longer term review of the material is done using a software program called Mnemosyne.

These cardboard cards are the scaffolding for building my long term geographic knowledge. Once they have fulfilled their purpose, I can throw them out knowing that the information is in my long term memory.

Memorising the countries of the World

Can you name the capital city of any country? Could you name all the countries of Europe? Is Vanuatu a country or a city? And where is Montenegro anyway?

These are the sort of questions that used to bug me. How could I build up my General Knowledge of the world as quickly and comprehensively as possible? A good starting point is knowing the names of each country and their capital cities.

I decided to memorise the names of all the countries of the world and their capital cities. My strategy was to use peg words with which to associate the information.

1. The first step was to compiling a list of countries and capital cities. I used the World Guide 11th edition (published in 2008) as my reference from which I created a spreadsheet of country names and capitals. The World Guide is available from New Internationalist magazine.

2. The next step was to sequence the countries to make a journey around the planet. Each country in my list should be a neighbour to the previous and next countries on the list. Sometimes this required crossing oceans, for example, going from the United Kingdom to Portugal. The advantage of remembering the countries in sequence is being able to recall a country's neighbour which helps recall the location of a country on the globe.

3. I used the Major System and my key words for the numbers 0 to 99. Each of these numbers has a key image(a peg word), for example 21 is "net". Because there are more than 99 countries, I needed more peg words.

This problem was solved by extending the peg words by modifying them. This system is called the Self Enhancing Master Memory Matrix by Tony Buzan in his book "Master Your Memory". Very simply, it uses the hundred peg words then multiplies the list by 10 using some new images.

I modified my peg words using colours, so the numbers 100 - 199 are Red, 200 - 299 are Green, 300 - 399 Blue, 400 - 499 Brown, 500 - 599 Gold, 600 - 699 Violet, 700 - 799 Black, 800 - 899 Grey, and 900 - 999 are White. I only need the first three colours for the countries.

4. I connected the peg words to the countries and their associated capitals. The first fifteen items on my list are shown below, showing the link from the peg number to the country and then to the capital. Some countries are very small and the names are the same, for example, Monaco, Vatican City and San Marino.

101 -> United Kingdom -> London
102 -> Ireland -> Dublin
103 -> Portugal -> Lisbon
104 -> Spain -> Madrid
105 -> Andorra -> Andorra la Vella
106 -> France ->Paris
107 -> Luxembourg -> Luxembourg
108 -> Monaco -> Monaco
109 -> Belgium -> Brussels
110 -> Netherlands -> Amsterdam
111 -> Germany -> Berlin
112 -> Liechtenstein -> Vaduz
113 -> Switzerland -> Bern
114 -> Austria -> Vienna
115 -> Italy -> Rome

5. The memorisation technique was to take the peg word image for each number, then create an association to the country name. Next I would create an association between country and capital. For example, the peg word for 101 is Tie (as in necktie), and 101 has the modifier of Red. I imagined three kings (UNITED KINGDOM) tied up with a large red necktie and they were puffing up their chests (lungs -> LONDON) trying to escape.

I know some of the capital cities very well, for example, London is the capital of the United Kingdom. Some capitals have tricky spelling so more time was needed to be spent forming association, for exampled Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia. My image was a packet of jubes being eaten by Jana Wendt, an Australian television reporter.

Here are some more of the associations I created:

104 - red Ra (pharaoh) waving a spanner (SPAIN) madly (MADRID) about

105 - red law -> Red faced judge opening a door (ANDORRA) covered with legal documents opening into a valley (LA VELLA)

106 - red shoe -> Red shoe kicking a soccer ball into the arc de triomphe (FRANCE, PARIS)

107 - red key -> Red key jammed into a bar of LUX soap squeezed between two hamburger buns

108 - red ivy -> Red ivy draped around a monk's neck (MONACO)

109 - red bee -> Red bee stinging a BELGIUM chocolate jammed between two BRUSSEL sprouts

6. How do I create the associations?

I found that I need to be in a relaxed state of mind to devise the associations. What I did was to cut up some cardboard into small pieces, and write the number on one side and the capital and country on the other side. I would take these cards on my walks and work on one card at a time, exploring associations and occasionally writing pencil notes on the card.

Names of countries and capitals need to be converted into memorable images. I try to find a word that reminds me of what I am remembering. For example, San Merino became a Merino sheep. Monaco becomes a MONK, Croatia became a CROW, and Bulgaria became a Bulging Sofa.

One of the big challenges was creating strong images for the foreign words. For example, Skopje sounds like Skippy (or skipping rope). Tbilisi (capital of Georgia) became a cup of Tea sitting on a duck's bill floating on the sea. This image was enough to recall Tbilisi. Abu Dhabi reminded me of Fred Flintstone yelling "Yabba Dabba Doo!".

Creating these associations is a powerful workout for creativity and imagination.

My lunch time and weekend walks are a great place and time for reviewing the cards and building up my memory. In addition I refine the associations for the numbers that were hard to recall.

7. How do I test my knowledge?

As well as learning new information, I needed to review the older material. My cardboard flash cards are great for learning the new material as I usually only carry around 20 - 30 cards. The old cards are bundled with a rubber band, and a little bit clumsy to review. I could review the list from the beginning, but this is not efficient as some of the associations are well remembered and others are not.

I started using a Flashcard program (Mnemosyne) to test my knowledge. This is software that shows you a question, you think about your response, press a button to show the answer, then rate yourself on how well I knew the answer. Based on response to "how well do I recall I answer", the program schedules the card to be shown at a particular interval. Cards I know well get schedulded many days into the future, but the cards I don't know will be scheduled for much sooner. My strategy is to use the Flashcard program every day.

Another advantage of the Flashcard program is that it shows the cards at random. Trying to test myself using the physical cards meant I was seeing the cards in the sequence.

8. Accessing a particular continent

What if I wanted to name all the countries for Asia Pacific? Which number do I start with? For this reason, I have memorised the starting numbers for each continent. I know that United Kingdom (the beginning of Europe) is 101 but Asia Pacific starts at 194. The number 194 can be translated with the Major System to Toe-bar (T-B-R). I imagine an Australian Holden car with a giant toe-bar at the back.

Yesterday I started creating associations for Africa which started at 216. This means I have already learnt 115 countries and capitals, so I am about half way through this project.

Creating strong associations

In an earlier article about the number rhyme system, I gave examples of how I would make asssociations with the peg words and my shopping list. I had four items to remember: Post a letter, buy a loaf of bread, collect medical benefits from my health fund, and buy a newspaper. The pegwords for the first four numbers are gun, shoe, tree and door.

My suggested associations were walking into the post office and fire bullets at a target on the wall on which was pinned my letter. Using the shoe, I walk on the dough being used to make bread. In the tree, there is a large stethoscope (reminding me of a doctor) hanging from a branch. Attached to this rope-like stethoscope are medical receipts attached with hypodermic needles. For the fourth item on my list, the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald is pasted on a door. The entire door has been wall papered with newspaper.

I received feedback from my friend Dilip Mukerjea (owner of 'Braindancing International' and the Buzan centre in Singapore) encouraging me to create wilder associations. These are his suggestions.

Just a thought for you. I strongly recommend that your associative imagery NOT be as 'logical' as you have depicted. My preference is, for easier recall, that the imagery should be:

Mad (incongruous), NOT at all logical, though you have introjected a certain amount of welcome illogicality (e.g. shoe on the dough. For me it would be shoe on the dough and with each step the dough animatedly metamorphosing from shoeprint into dough shoe in the shape of bread loaves!)

Movement (animated) (e.g. I would prefer the stethoscope if it were going into a manic dance mode, wrapped around a 'medic in the air' (medicare) so that the entire tree was shaking (note the real-time "-ing" factor). Perhaps the stethoscope is dropping off dollar notes for the payment that is due to you.

The medical receipts bit is great. Thus, by this logic also, your number 1, 'gun' could be going 'ballistic' by firing the letter(s) from its barrel into a letter box at the post office as opposed to being static on the wall, being fired at. The animation effect enables recall to be easier as the brain emerged and evolved in response to the need for movement and locomotion.

Multicoloured - get psychedelic and infuse your imagery with dazzling colours.

Multisensory - Have your medical receipts screaming "Pay me! Pay me!" or some such thing. The shoe on the dough could be taking a zigzag pattern and steaming aromatic odours, squeaking melodiously, breathing, changing colours with each breath, etc.

I have made the above four elements easier for you to recall by using the letter 'M' for each of them, so that you can visualise their behaviour - they work very well for me.

Anyway, hope this is of some help. Each person has their own preferences, especially when it comes to activating the association cortex! The above might look elaborate in the beginning but gets 'automatic' in time as you must already know.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My list of 100 peg words

These are the words I use for the numbers zero to 99. You will need to read my earlier article about the phonetic system for this article to make sense.

I memorised the following list mainly by rote learning. As I reviewed each number, I converted it in my mind to the phonetic equivalent then asked myself "what image did I use for this?". I would think of each vowel in turn (a, e, i, o and u) and would see which word came to mind. For example, 21 could be "nat", "net", "nit", "nut", "knot". I had chosen the word "net". The learning process didn't take too long and was easier than it looked.

If you would like to use this list, I would encourage you to change any word to something more memorable, particularly those words you have trouble recalling. For example 99 has the phonetic equivalent of B/P B/P so you could words like Bib (baby's bib) or bap (a type of bread roll) or pub (have a beer!).

Choose the word that comes to mind quickly. Just be careful you don't have words on your list whose images could be confused. For example, I used to use the word Ball for 94 but this was getting confused with the rounded image of Peach (96). I changed my image for 94 to Bull.

Here is my list with some comments on some of my key images

0 saw a handsaw
1 tie necktie
2 Noah standing on the deck of the Ark
3 ma A large motherly lady
4 Ra Pharaoh
5 law Judge wearing a wig
6 shoe
7 key
8 ivy
9 bee

10 toes
11 tot A baby
12 tan
13 dam
14 tyre
15 towel
16 tissue
17 tack thumb tack
18 dove the bird
19 tap

20 NASA Think of a Space Shuttle
21 net
22 nun
23 gnome garden gnome
24 Nero Roman Emperor - wearing toga
25 nail large nail (not like 17 tack)
26 nachos like a corn chip
27 neck
28 knife
29 nib old fashioned writing implement

30 mace
31 mat
32 moon
33 mummy Egyptian mummy
34 mower Lawn mower
35 mail Letter box
36 match
37 mike microphone
38 mafia Don Corleone
39 map

40 rose
41 rat
42 rain
43 ram
44 rower
45 rail
46 roach
47 rake garden rake
48 roof
49 rope

50 lassoo (some confusion here with 49 rope)
51 lid
52 lion
53 llama
54 lyre
55 lily
56 leech
57 log
58 lava
59 lip

60 cheese
61 sheet
62 chain
63 chime Wind chimes
64 chair
65 cello
66 church
67 cheque
68 sheaf
69 ship

70 case
71 cat
72 can
73 comb
74 car
75 coil
76 cage
77 cake
78 cafe
79 cape

80 fez Moroccan hat
81 foot
82 fan
83 foam
84 fire
85 file
86 fish
87 fag cigarette
88 fife
89 vibe vibraphone

90 bus
91 bat
92 bone
93 bum
94 pear
95 bull large bull with horns
96 peach
97 bike
98 puff of smoke
99 pipe

Monday, July 20, 2009

Remembering the calendar for 2009

On which day does Christmas fall this year? What about your birthday? How did you work out the answer?

You probably found the nearest calendar, maybe on the computer or your mobile phone then looked up the answer. How long did that take?

How would like to memorise the calendar for one year, just like the image at the top of this article? You can do this by remembering just four words.

Here is the method for working out the day of the week for any date in the current year. This is how I did it for 2009.

1. Write down the date of the first Sunday of each month to make a list of 12 numbers. These are shown in red in the calendar above. The dates for 2009 are 4,1,1,5,3,7, 5,2,6,4,1 and 6.

2. Separate the numbers into four chunks of 3 digits, therefore: 411, 537, 526 and 416.

3. Convert the four 3-digit numbers into phonetic equivalents using the Major System. I used the 2Know program to derive the phrase: "aerated oilymuck lunch radish". How do I remember this? I image myself sitting down to lunch staring at a bowl of bubbling (AERATED) soup that looks like used engine oil (OILYMUCK). I am forced to eat this for LUNCH with a large red RADISH on top.

4. To find the date for any date is just a matter of recalling the number of the month by first recalling the appropriate word, in this case RADISH (R-D-SH). December is SH which is the equivalent for 6. Therefore the first Sunday of December is the 6th, so you have a starting point for calculations. The second Sunday will be the 13th (6 + 7), the next Sunday the 20th (13 + 7). Count forward 5 days and you reach Friday.

You should be able to perform the last step in less than a couple of seconds. People will soon start calling you the walking calendar. As well as developing your memory skills, this technique will give your arithmetic skills a further workout.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Major System

The Major system is a memory technique for remembering numbers of arbitrary length. It works by converting numbers into consonant sounds which are then converted into recognisable words by adding vowels.

These words can then be memorised easily particularly when used in conjunction with other memory techniques. The system is not new and was introduced by Stanislaus Mink von Wennshein (1620 - 1699) and refined by others with the most recent work by Harry Lorayne, author of many popular Memory improvement books.

Here is the table of numbers and how they convert to letters. The conversion is phonetic so you will notice the choice of letters sound roughly similar.

0 s, z, soft c
1 t, d, th
2 n
3 m
4 r
5 l
6 j, sh, soft ch, dg, soft g
7 k, hard ch, hard g, ng, qu
8 f, v
9 b, p

The vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and the letters h, w and y do not have any associated number so they can be used as fillers or "wild cards" to make the words.

The first step in using the Major System is to memorise the substitute letters. This is quite easy:

0 - Zero sounds like s or c. 'o' is the last letter of zero
1 - The letters D and T have one downstroke
2 - The letter N has two downstrokes
3 - The letter M has three downstrokes
4 - The last letter of four is R
5 - The letter L can be thought of as the Roman L meaning 50 or a hand spread with five fingers, the index finger and thumb forming an image.
6 - The letter J is the mirror image of 6
7 - The letter K when seen as a capital contains three number 7s
8 - The letter F when handwritten, has two loops, similar to the number 8.
9 - The letters B and P are mirror imags of 9.

So how do you convert a number into a word?

Write the letters for each word in sequence but leave some spacew between them. If there are choices of letter for a number write them above each other. Now look at the letters and see what words you can make by adding vowels or the "wild card" letters.

I memorised my building access code of 3702 as follows. The number translated to M K S N. This made me think of "moccasin". Now I just imagine a moccasin sitting on top of the security number pad. I haven't worked in that building since December 2001, and I still remember the code!

Telephone numbers can be remembered easily. For example, the NRMA Roadside Assistance number is 13 11 11. This translates to T/D M T/D T/D/ T/D. I thought of "auToMaTeD DuD" as the mnemonic. My car is automatic transmission but since it doesn't work, it is now a dud.

The major system is the basis of a larger number peg system. A substitute word is chosen for each number from 0 to 99. The best way to choose the words is to see which word comes to mind when you translate the number into letters. For example, 7 is K or G. How about "key"?

My first ten numbers and associated words are:

0 saw (imagine a handsaw for cutting wood)
1 tie (necktie)
2 Noah (Noah standing on the ark)
3 ma (A large woman wearing an apron)
4 Ra (Looks like a pharaoh mask)
5 law (Imagine a judge's wig)
6 shoe (brown leather shoe)
7 key (a large, old fashioned key)
8 ivy (a vine of ivy)
9 bee (a large bumblebee)

I have developed my own list of words up to 99 which I can give you if you are interested.

Thinking of words can be challenging at times, but I get help using the 2Know program. Type in the number and the program suggests substitute words from its extensive dictionary. The program is free!


In an earlier post I wrote about the three foundation pillars to Memory: Association, Image and Location. These can be remembered with the image of Muhammid Ali.

Memory works by ASSOCIATING new information with stored memories in some imaginary LOCATION. The stronger the image (using all the senses if possible) the more ways the IMAGE can be associated and later recalled.

Tony Buzan writes in his book "Master Your Memory" about 12 special techniques for strengthening your skills of making strong images and assocations. The first letter of these techniques spells the phrase SMASHIN' SCOPE.

Synesthesia and Sensuality. Synesthesia (also spelled synaesthesia) is from the Ancient Greek "syn" meaning together and "aisthesis" meaning sensation. Many great memorisers have developed an increased sensitivity in each of their senses to enhance their powers of association and recall. Use all of your senses when developing an image
  • Vision - What does it look like? Colour? Brightness? What can you see?
  • Hearing - What does it sound like?
  • Smell - What is the smell? Perfume? Pungent? Chemical?
  • Taste - Describe the taste sensation
  • Touch - What does it feel like? Textures?
Kinaesthesia - awareness of bodliy position and movement in space

Movement - action enhances a memory. Make your images alive and moving as if they were scenes from a movie.

Association - What you are trying to remember should be associated with something you already know. Typically, this known item is a peg in your number system, or a location on an imaginary journey.

Sexuality. We all have a good memory and wild imagination when it comes to sex, so use it! You don't have to tell anyone that you used strong sexual imagery to remember something.

Humour - the more ridiculous, absurb, funny and surreal you make your images, the more memorable they will become. Humour puts your mind into a playful state making you more creative and open to new possibilities.

Imagination. The images you create in your mind can be as fantastic and wild as you like. Unlike a big-budget Hollywood film, you can create blockbuster images in your memory.

Number. Numbering adds specifity and efficiency to the principle of order and sequence.

Symbolism. Substituting a more meaningful image for an ordinary or boring image makes a stronger memory. I think this letter could stand for Substitution where you use a different, but associated image to aid recall. For example, in remembering the countries of the world, I used the word Bratwurst (a type of meat) to help me remember Bratislava (the capital of the Slovak Republic).

Colour - Use all the colours of the rainbow to colour your image (remember Roy G Biv?). Don't make your associations just in black and white - make them full technicolor.

Order (or Sequence). When items are memorised in a sequence, you can recall the items by taking a mental journey through this sequence.

Positive Images - make your images positive and pleasant. We are better at recalling happy images and negative memories are usually suppressed. When your images are bright and positive you will enjoy the experience of recalling them.

Exaggeration. As far as possible, exaggerate everything in your images. Exaggerate the size, action, colours, sounds and quantities.

Some of the information in this articles is from Chapter 4 of "Master Your Memory" by Tony Buzan, published in 2000.

The Number Rhyme System

Our lives are full of numbers. Telephone numbers, building access codes, PIN numbers for our bank cards, passport number, and so on. The problem with numbers is they are not easy to visualise and remember. You probably remembered your telephone number by rote learning.

Numbers are just numbers. They don't have personality or strong visual imagery. This is where the number rhyme scheme comes into play - a system where each number from 0 to 10 has an associated rhyming word.

Say the numbers from 0 to 10 out loud and see which word comes to mind. The drawing above shows the numbers that came to my mind along with a drawing of that image. Here are the numbers and words:

0 - Hero (hence the superhero)
1 - Gun
2 - Shoe
3 - Tree
4 - Door
5 - Hive (a bee hive)
6 - sticks
7 - heaven
8 - gate
9 - wine
10 - hen

Now that I have a series of strong mental images, I can use them as mental pegs for making associations. The items to be remembered are associated with the number rhyme image and the item to be remembered.

This system is very useful for when you suddenly think of something you need to do. For example, once when I was on a walk I remembered a few things I needed to do. I associated each item with a number in sequence and I don't need to write anything down. However I start the numbering from one (the gun).

For example, if I wanted to remember the following chores to do at the shops:
Post a letter (1)
Buy a loaf of bread (2)
Visit the Medicare office to submit a medical expense claim (3)
Buy a newspaper (4).

I could imagine the following associations: Using the GUN, I walk into the post office and fire bullets at a target on the wall. My LETTER is pinned on this target. Using the SHOE, I walk on the dough being used to make BREAD. In the TREE, there is a large stethoscope (reminding me of a doctor) hanging from a branch. Attached to this rope-like stethoscope are medical receipts attached with hypodermic needles. On the DOOR is pasted the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. The entire door has been wall papered with newspaper.

So how do I remember these items when I go out to lunch? First I think of gun. What am I doing with the gun? Shooting in the post office (going postal?) What am I doing with the shoe? Walking the dough. I think you get the idea. Creating vivid associations helps make the associations memorable.

The number rhyme system is a useful method of remembering short lists of items for relatively short periods of time. You can't use the list for multipled lists as your memories will get jumbled. There are other systems for doing this, such as the Major System and the Dominic Number system which I will write about later.

There is also a number shape system where the key images are derived from the shape of the number. For example, one looks like a candle and four looks like a yacht. I will write about this system in a later post.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Do you know Roy G Biv? He is the fictitious man whose name is a mnemonic for remembering the colours of the rainbow - Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet.

A mnemonic is a technique used to help remember and recall information. The word mnemonic is from the Greek word mnemonikos which refers to Mnemosyne, the personification of memory in Greek mythology.

Mnemonics are usually based on a word, name, acronym, rhyme or short sentence.
First letter mnemonics encode the information to be remembered as the first letter of a name or word, such as ROY G BIV.

Another example is the mnemonic for remembering attributes of goals: SMART. The letters standing for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound. The problem with these first letter mnemonics is being able to recall the word if there are many similar words with the same first letter.

I recently learnt a mnemonic for remembering the states of Canada from West to East: BASMOQ (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec).

Sentence mnemonics encode the information as the first letter of each word in a memorable sentence. I prefer this method as the imagery of the action is more memorable.

The colours of the rainbow can also be learnt as Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain. Personally, I prefer ROY G BIV.

I learnt the names of the Great Lakes in America as Some Men Have Early Onions (Superior, Michigan, Huon, Erie and Ontario). It is a silly sentence but I have remembered it for over 35 years.

When I learnt piano, my teacher used mnemonics to teach the names of the notes on a treble clef: Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit (EGBDF) and FACE for the notes between the lines. On the Bass Clef, the lines are Good Boys Deserve Fruit Always, and the notes been the lines are All Cows Eat Grass.

I devised a mnemonic to remember the order of letters in the Japanese syllabary (Hiragana and Katakana): A Kind Samurai Told Naomi How My Yak Ran Wild. This allows me to remember the first letter in each row: A, Ka, Sa, Ta, Na, Ha, Ma, Ya, Ra, Wa. What about N and O?

Rhyme Mnemonics are short verses or poems to help remember information. The earliest one I learnt was to remember the number of days in the month.
30 days hath September,
April, June and November
All the rest have 31
Except February, 28
The first two lines are the most useful part of the verse and I still use this mnemonic. I know February has 28 days and 29 days in leap years, so I only need to know which months have 30 days.

Another rhyme I learnt in Primary school was In fourteen ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. This is not much use as all it tells me is a year. I don't know where Columbus went or why!

I use the rhyme of I before E except after C to determine spelling of words receive and sieve. Another spelling mnemonic was to determine the difference between principal (head of a school) and principle: The principal is your pal (friend)

Mnemonics are good for recall as well as fun and a quick way to recall information. I don't use them much but it is good mental exercise to devise them.

Here is an exercise that shows how the alphabet can help you recall all the boys (or girls) names you can recall in a limited name. Decide whether you are going to recall boys' or girls' names.

1. Set a timer for 2 minutes.

2. Write as many names as you can.

Reflect on how you recalled these names. Did you think of people you worked with? Your friends? People from your school days?

3. Now write the letters of the alphabet, set the timer for another 2 minutes then write a name against each letter of the alphabet.

What sort of names did you think of immediately for each letter? Which letters did you get stuck on thinking of name. What Boys names begin with Y? Which Girls names begin with X?

4. Set the timer for another 2 minutes and write more names against the letters in any order you like.

Were the names you had already written useful in generating more associations?

Did you notice how the first letter is like a piece of bait used in "fishing" for ideas? I will have more to say on this topic in a future blog article about a book (and software program) called Ideafisher.

Do you have some fun mnemonics? What mnemonics have you used in your life? Please share in the comments.

1. Read more about Mnemosyne , Mnemonics and SMART Criteria at Wikipedia.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Journey Memory Method

The Journey memory method is straight-forward. You assign the items you want to remember to locations on a predefined journey. Each item needs to be associated with the location using a strong mental image, and employing all five senses.

The system is also known as the Locus or Loci method since the method has been documented as far back as Ancient Rome. Orators would imagine key images of their speeches at different locations around the room.

The journey should be familiar to you and easy to recall. For example, I have a journey in my house with the following stages:

1. Bedroom
2. En suite bathroom
3. The TV/Hifi entertainment area
4. Bookshelf area
5. Toilet
6. Laundry
7. Kitchen
8. Dining Room
9. Front Lounge Room
10. Entrance Hall

I could continue my journey outside for longer lists:

11. Front Porch
12. Car port
13. On the driveway
14. At the letterbox
15. On the road outside our house
16. At the intersection of our street
17. At the bus stop
18. At the bottom of the hill on Finlay Road
19. At the intersection with the highway
20. At the railway station.

In Dominic O'Brien's Quantum Memory Power CD set, he gave a list of items to remember. I listened to this list once over 8 days ago without revision and I can still remember most of the items.

The first item was "Wallet" so I imagined a very large wallet on my bed,as big as the bedspread. The third item was "snake" and I imagined a very large snake draped over our lounge chair watching television. The fourth item was "screwdriver" which I imagined jammed into the bookcase. The fifth item was "peach" and I imagined a very large juicy peach on top of our toilet.

I wont recount the remaining items I remember but the act of using strong images of the item being remembered with some action at the place on the journey, makes a very powerful recall technique.

O'Brien offers other suggestions for Journeys including a 31 step journey for memorising your calendar, and journey in a holiday destination (or some other pleasurable place) to use as a mental in tray. His suggestion for forgetting one of the associations is to take a mental hand grenade and blow up the item.

In summary, the Journey method is very effective and only requires you devise some mental journeys to place the things you want to remember. You can have a lot of fun exercising your imagination to make make the items you are remembering associate with the stages on your journey. Use all of the senses - sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. Imagine your association using all of the senses and your recall will be so much better.

I already know my house journey, but I need to work on my 31 step journey for a calendar/diary and another journey for memorising speeches!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Rote Learning - Good or bad?

Do you recognise the "Times Tables" from your primary school days? This chart is printed on the back of exercise books for the benefit of struggling school students.

Much of the learning I did in primary school was through rote learning. This is a common memory technique where the material is repeated again and again until is is drilled into long term memory.

Do you remember learning the alphabet and using songs and rhymes to help you remember the sequence of letters? Maybe you used to sing the alphabet song:

A - B - C - D - E - F - G
H - I - J - K - L - M - N - O - P
Q - R - S - T - U and V,
W - X - Y and Z
Now I know my A - B - C's
Next time won't you sing with me?

The idea of rote learning is that if you repeat it often enough, you will recall it. I'm sure you can recite the alphabet from A to Z. But what you learnt was reciting it in the forward direction. Here is an experiment: Time yourself reciting the alphabet from A to Z, then try it again from Z to A. What you learnt was a chain of associations from A to B, B to C and so on util Y to Z. You didn't learn the alphabet in reverse so the recall is much more challenging.

The "times table" was probably the biggest learning challenge in primary school along with learning the spelling of words. I think rote learning is necessary in the early stages of learning anything as the foundation of knowledge is not present. Mathematics often requires learning things "by rote" with understanding coming later. Regular revision and games helps reinforce the memory and systems such as Kumon and Mathletics (used in my daughter's school).

Rote learning can be fun when it is made into a game or competition. Learning to spell words is a matter of repetion and revision, and a Spelling Bee is a popular way of proving one's spelling memory. I am proud to say that both my daughters did very well at spelling in primary school and won awards for spelling.

My daughter's school put on the "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" musical in 2009. She played cello in the band, and I must say the production was magnificent and the music most enjoyable. Have a look at the online game: as well as reading more about spelling bees at Wikipedia.

Rote Learning is sometimes referred to as learning "
parrot fashion", or learning "off by heart". It does work, but the problem is the material is not assimilated with other knowledge or it can be distorted. Try learning a phone number, long quotation or poem "off by heart" then test your recall a few days later. Your recall won't be as strong as using memory techniques (mnemonics) based on association, location and imagination.

When I was in high school I decided to learn the Greek alphabet "off by heart" and was able to recite "Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta.... through to Omega". More recently I learnt the upper case and lower case Greek letters. Considering these letters are used in mathematics I thought it is useful to know the names and shapes of these letters.

I taught myself the Katakana and Hiragana Japanese syllabaries by rote learning and it was a long, painful process. When my older daughter learnt Japanese at school she had a book that taught these characters using visual mnemonics. If only I had this book when I first started. Hiragana and Katakana are just the beginning to reading Japanese. There are thousands of Kanji characters to learn and I continue to be amazed that Japanese school children learn to read and write these characters.

We remember a lot of material as a result of hearing it repeatedly. For example, songs and their lyrics, especially the National Anthem. Many pieces of information get imprinted in our memory as "trivia" - information that has no practical purpose or relevance in our lives, but extremely valuable in Trivia contests and Pub Quiz nights.

A useful way of revising material learnt by rote-learning is to use flash cards. These are cards with the question written on one side and the answer on another. I regularly use flash cards (3 x 5 inch index cards) or software to do the job. The advantage of using the computer is that the program remembers which cards you got correct, which cards should be shown in the near future as well as shuffling the cards.

Therefore rote learning is a memory technique that sometimes has to be used, but more advanced memory techniques should be used once the foundation knowledge is established.

Please tell me about your rote learning experiences in the comments below then read
more on Rote Learning at Wikipedia

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Remembering titles of Harry Potter books

I was having coffee with a friend this week and we were trying to recall the titles of all the Harry Potter books. I could remember the first three but the remaining titles became a blur. So I decided to memorise the titles and demonstrate how this is done with a simple story based on Association and Imagination.

The important thing to remember is that the information is known to me. I have read the books and know the titles, but I don't remember the sequence. My little story that helps me remember the sequence is a mnemonic.

First of all, the titles of the books are:

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow
Each book begins with "Harry Potter and the..." so I just need to remember the second part of the title. Here is my story which I created by imagining the action and linking things together:

Harry Potter carries the PHILOSOPHERS STONE down into the CHAMBER OF SECRETS. The door slams loudly and he realises he is now a PRISONER OF AZKABAN. He turns his wand into a cigarette lighter and lights the
GOBLET OF FIRE. The flames rush up and a GOLDEN PHOENIX appears holding an ORDER pad (like a waiter). As the phoenix bursts into flames, HALF of its BLOOD pours onto the floor to form a DEATHLY HALLOWED puddle.

So what do you think of that story? Read it out loud as if you were entertaining a child. Can you recall the book titles in sequence? Think of some lists you would like to remember. I'm going to remember the films of Stanley Kubrick.

ALI - The three foundations of memory

The three foundations of memory are Association, Location and Imagination. Dominic O'Brien in his "Quantum Memory Power" CD memory course suggests the acronym of ALI (as in Muhammed Ali) to remember these three words.

Association - An association is a mental link between two disparate items. Memory techniques require us to force associations between items that usually have no connection. This is where the fun and creativity of memory are required, and is a skill you need to practice regularly.

Location - Items to be remembered need to be stored in a place set aside in your mind. There are many ways to do this, but the oldest method is to use your memory of a physical locations, such as the rooms in your house. More abstract locations are pegs such as numbers and I will write more about the number-rhyme, number-shape, and major systems in later articles.

Imagination - effective memory requires us to convert the information we are trying to remember into something that can be experienced in a number of different ways and stimulating the senses. For example, remembering "apple" requires you to imagine the appearance and colour of the apple, the taste as you take you a bite, and so on. Using the Imagination we can go further and imagine the object interacting with what we are associating it with, maybe exaggerating its size or shape. Giving life and movement to inanimate objects will help create a stronger impression.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What is memory?

Memory is our ability to store, retain and recall information.

This is the basis of a large part of our education and our daily life. We rememember how to tie our shoe laces, how to get dressed. We remember our own name and that of others. As we live each day, we remember information, feelings and experiences.

I work in the software industry, so when I apply my information processing view of the world, I see memory as consisting of three stages:

Encoding the information - receiving and processing the information
Storing the information - creating a permanent record of the information in my long term memory, usually by associating it with something I already know.
Retrieval or Recall of the information - accessing the information in response to some cue or request.

I am going to write about all three aspects of memory in my blog, but the major focus will be ways to store the information. Often our "bad memory" problems can be caused by not getting the information to begin with. Consider the situation of being introduced to someone. You are so busy worrying what you are going to say, that you don't hear the introduction. Later you realise you don't know the person's name because you never got it to begin with!

The are three broad types of memory:

Sensory memory occurs less than on second after an item is perceived. However the information is forgotten almnost as quickly as it is received/

Short-term memory allows recall for a short period of time without rehearsal. Rehearsal is when we repeat the information to create a stronger impression. George Miller's work at Bell Laboraties showed that the short term memory is about 7 items. Think about how you remember a telephone number or a person's address. The capacitiy of short-term memory can be increased through a process of chunking, for example grouping telephone numbers in chunks of 3 digits.

Long-term memory can store large quantities of information for potentially unlimited durations. The long-term memory is encoded in the connections in our neurons. Mew memories are associated with older memories as a result of more neuron connections. That's why you can remember things better if you have multiple ways to associate the new information. There will be more ways to "file" the information.

Memory techniques are primarily aimed at improving the Long-Term memory system.

More information at Wikipedia in the article on Memory

What do I need to remember?

In the 21st century with the abundance of iPhones, Blackberries, laptop computers, mobile phones as well as beautiful Moleskine notebooks, you would think our memory skills are no longer required. There are many situations in life when we need to use our mental ability and not to rely on external storage systems.

Names and Faces
- Dealing with people is part of life - personal and business. When we meet people we need to be able to remember their name to use during the conversation and when we see them again. I meet so many people who say "I'm hopeless with remembering names!". I will show you how to master this important skill.

Vocabulary - The ability to understand and use words in conversation as well as recognising words when we read is the foundation of education. The more words we know, the better.

Security information - Our bank cards have a PIN (Personal Identification Number) and we are required to memorise the number and not write it down. How do you remember the numbers of several cards? Building access codes, Internet banking, etc.

Your passport number - Imagine you are travelling overseas and all your valuables are stolen including your paper notebook with your important details. You contact your embassy and you able to tell them your passport number because you have memorised it.

Speeches and Presentations - Delivering a speech from memory is an important skill. I am a member of a Toastmasters club and always deliver my speeches from memory. I don't actually memorise every word, but remember keywords and how the parts of the speech are linked. Usually I memorise the opening and closing sentences word-for-word as this gives great impact. I will blog later about speeches and talks.

Jokes and Stories - The Internet (email in particular) has killed the oral tradition of telling jokes. Revive the lost skill of oral storytelling and commit humour to memory then retell the story with your personal touch.

General Knowledge - I am currently working on the task of remembering all the countries and capitals of the world. This information gives me the framework for understanding current affairs and world events. Have you ever heard an unfamiliar country name in a news report and didn't know where it was? Could you visualise each country as the Olympic athlete teams march on to the arena with their flags? Once you have a framework of world knowledge in your memory, then you can associate more information.