From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Lord Bacon, more than two centuries ago, wisely characterized mnemonic systems as "barren and useless." He wrote, "For immediately to repeat a multitude of names or words once repeated before, I esteem no more than rope-dancing, antic postures, and feats of activity; and, indeed, they are nearly the same thing, the one being the abuse of the bodily, as the other is of mental powers; and though they may cause admiration, they cannot be highly esteemed.""--A Book for All Readers (1900) by Ainsworth Rand Spofford
A mnemonic device is a mind memory and/or learning aid. Commonly, mnemonics are verbal—such as a very short poem or a special word used to help a person remember something—but may be visual, kinesthetic or auditory. Mnemonics rely on associations between easy-to-remember constructs which can be related back to the data that is to be remembered. This is based on the principle that the human mind much more easily remembers spatial, personal, surprising, sexual, humorous or otherwise meaningful information than arbitrary sequences.
The word mnemonic is derived from the Ancient Greek word μνημονικός mnēmonikós ("of memory") and is related to Mnemosyne ("remembrance"), the name of the goddess of memory in Greek mythology. Both of these words refer back to μνῆμα mnḗma ("remembrance"). Mnemonics in antiquity were most often considered in the context of what is today known as the Art of Memory.
The major assumption in antiquity was that there are two sorts of memory: the "natural" memory and the "artificial" memory. The former is inborn and is the one that everyone uses every day. The latter is trained through learning and practicing a variety of mnemonic techniques. It can also be used to perform feats of memory that are quite extraordinary or impossible to carry out using the natural memory alone.
First letter mnemonics
One common mnemonic for remembering lists consists of an easily remembered acronym, or phrase with an acronym that is associated with the list items. The idea lends itself well to memorizing hard-to-break passwords as well.
For example, to remember the "classic" named colours of the rainbow (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet), it can be easier for some people to remember the mnemonics "Roy G. Biv" (a made-up name) instead. Or in reverse "VIBGYOR" pronounced "vib-GYOr". Or easier: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.
Other mnemonic systems
- Art of Memory
- Method of loci
- Link System
- Mnemonic peg system
- Major system
- Goroawase System
- Dominic system
Arbitrariness of mnemonics
A curious characteristic of many memory systems is that mnemonics work despite being (or possibly because of being) illogical or arbitrary. "Roy" is a legitimate first name, but there is no actual surname "Biv" and of course the middle initial "G" is arbitrary.Template:Citation needed Why is "Roy G. Biv" easy to remember in order to memorize the order that the seven colours of the rainbow appear? ROYGBIV can also be expressed as the almost meaningless phrase "Roy Great Britain the Fourth" again referencing "Roy" but using the GB national code for Great Britain and the Roman numerals for 4, viz: IV. The sentence "Richard of York gave battle in vain" is commonly used in the UK. School children in Singapore are sometimes taught "Raju Of Yishun Gave Birth In Vain", Raju being a common Indian name and Yishun being a residential area. The mnemonic for screw threads, "lefty loosey, righty tighty" only applies to half the circular arc when unscrewing or screwing in a nut, bolt or screw. It is reversed for the other half of the arc whereby any rightwards motion produces a torque which loosens the screw rather than tightens. Any two of the three months ending in -ember would fit just as euphoniously as September and November in "Thirty days hath...", yet most people can remember the rhyme correctly for a lifetime after having heard it once, and are never troubled by doubts as to which two of the -ember months have thirty days.Template:Citation needed A bizarre arbitrary association may stick in the mind better than a logical one.Template:Citation needed
One reason for the effectiveness of seemingly arbitrary mnemonics is the grouping of information provided by the mnemonic. Just as US phone numbers group 10 digits into three groups, the name "Roy G. Biv" groups seven colors into two short names and an initial. Various studies (most notably The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two) have shown that the human brain is capable of remembering only a limited number of arbitrary items in working memory; grouping these items into chunks permits the brain to hold more of them in memory.
Programming in machine code, by supplying the computer with the numbers of the operations it must perform, can be quite a burden, because for every operation the corresponding number must be looked up or remembered. Looking up all numbers takes a lot of time, and mis-remembering a number may introduce computer bugs.
Therefore a set of mnemonics was devised. Each number was represented by an alphabetic code. So instead of entering the number corresponding to addition to add two numbers one can enter "add".
Although mnemonics differ between different CPU designs some are common, for instance: "sub" (subtract), "div" (divide), "add" (add) and "mul" (multiply).
This type of mnemonic is different from the ones listed above in that instead of a way to make remembering numbers easier, it is a way to make remembering numbers unnecessary (i.e. by relying on the computer's assembler program to do the lookup work).
Assembler mnemonics do not necessarily have a one-to-one correspondence with opcodes. Sometimes, the same mnemonic is used for distinct (but related) operations, such as using "add" for both register+register and register+constant. Conversely, multiple mnemonics may use the same opcode: For example, if a processor has a "branch if less than" instruction but no "branch if greater than" instruction, a separate instruction mnemonic may be defined for "branch if greater than" and implemented as a "branch if less than" instruction with the operands reversed.
The IEEE 694 working group has produced a draft standard for assembly language mnemonics.
Mnemonics in foreign language acquisition (Keyword - Method)
Mnemonics can be helpful in studying a foreign language, for example by adapting a foreign word that is hard to remember to a pre-existent phrase in the learner's native language - using folk etymology. This technique is also known as the "keyword mnemonic". Linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann has proposed many Anglo-Hebraic lexical mnemonics for English-speaking students of Israeli Hebrew.
For example, in trying to assist the learner to remember ohel, the Hebrew word for tent, Zuckermann proposes the memorable sentence "Oh hell, there's a raccoon in my tent". The memorable sentence "There's a fork in Ma’s leg" may help the learner remember that the Hebrew word for fork is mazleg, and so forth.
The notable linguist Michel Thomas taught students to remember that estar is a Spanish verb for to be by using the phrase "to be a star".
The acronym mnemonic "bangs" is used to help English-speaking students of French to remember which adjectives go before the noun, "Beauty, Age, Number, Goodness, and Size". Also, phrases of position in French can easily be remembered with sentences, e.g. for 'pres de', meaning 'near to': "when you PRAY, you are NEAR TO God"; 'loin de', far from: "RWANDA is FAR FROM here", and 'à côté de', next to: "COATs on a hook are NEXT TO each other".
History of mnemonics