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The role of mnemonics in the different memory processes

To improve the attention and selection process you can practice concentration, both intensity and stamina (some form of meditation is often used to achieve this3). In this process we also include everything that has to do with creating an environment suitable for concentration. This includes external factors such as avoiding any disturbances and being given new information in a way that is clear and that you are comfortable with. It also includes internal factors such as being in good health, rested, relaxed and without any feeling of (negative) stress or pressure. In this process is also something seldom mentioned: the question of what you are supposed to pay attention to. The reason this is so rarely included in any mnemonic guides is of course that it is very subject specific.

Just to be clear: mnemonics means the deliberate use of ways to improve these factors. We can all concentrate more or less and what we do without having to actually think about it is not included in mnemonics. It is true that continuous use of mnemonic techniques will incorporate these into your normal thinking. However, when that happens, they are no longer mnemonics.

The encoding process is where you find all the famous mnemonic tricks that make up so much of the self-help literature on this subject4. So how can we make this process as effective as possible? We start by making the information we must remember as simple and logical as possible.

By organizing the information we lessen the amount to be remembered. We do this by distilling from our sources what we actually have to remember, we look for patterns and we decide how much of what we have left that actually has to be memorized. Not all of the original information needs to be encoded, you just need enough to remind you. Once you have found the memorized cues, you can often take it from there and remember the rest. So how do we encode what we have left?

Because we are different, the methods most effective to us differ as well. But there are still some general principles that seem to apply to practically everyone. One of those is that it is easier to imagine something concrete. A concept or anything else abstract is transferred into something concrete, which is remembered (concrete means you are able to sense it; see it, hear it, smell it...). In this and the other encoding situations imagination plays a big part.

Another basic concept is that it is always easier to remember something that has a clear connection to something you already know. Association with something familiar gives you a specific place to put the new stuff, a place where it is easy to find later. In order to make the associations as rich and effectual as possible, it helps to use all senses. Not just see an image but think about what it sounds like or what it smells like, or anything you might imagine. It is also good to attach some form of emotion or mood (if that doesn't come by itself); an emotional event is easier to remember than one you don't really care about.

A note about automatic encoding (also called "chunking"): In practically all aspects of life we use what is called implicit knowledge to automate tasks we perform regularly. For example, you do not have to think about how to walk, how to talk or how to read. It comes automatically. As mentioned above, this kind of simplification of input is not included in the term mnemonics.

Storage itself is not subject to mnemonic techniques, but the result of the other processes.

The retrieval is, because it is the decoding process, inevitably linked to the encoding process. Whatever you have associated with the memorized information is your key, so that is what you use in finding it again. If there is still something you cannot remember, the only thing you can do is search for it.

If you have something "on the tip of your tongue", that is if you know you have the information but cannot access it, you can in a limited way still look for cues. If it is a specific word, like a name, you can look for it by trying to start the word with the letters of the alphabet, one by one. Hopefully you will be reminded while trying the correct letter.

This sort of retrieval help, which is really just a form of systematic search, is only the last resort and not very effective. When developing the mnemonic techniques, all the work goes into the attention and selection and encoding process (in other words the input processes).

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