I've investigated memory systems over the years and find them interesting.

One of the common themes is that you should associate the thing being memorized with something that you already know. The act of recalling the familiar thing, should help you recall the one being memorized.

For example, to remember a list of nonsense words, you'd take a walk through your house and imagine something related to the word in each room. When you wanted to remember the words you could walk the room in your mind and recall them.

This approach does in fact work, for one list, but if I want to remember a new list, each room is now already associated and the act of recalling the room will now interfere with my attempt to remember the new list's items.

How do memory systems deal with this "interference of associations" or can they? Do people who claim that these systems help them remember vast amounts have an innate ability to partition their recall?

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    My turtle Pancho will, my love, pick up my new mover Ginger. – Mateen Ulhaq May 11 '11 at 3:02

This one's right in my wheelhouse. Yes, interference is a problem with using mnemonics like the Method of Loci (which you described very well). For this reason, a lot of competitive mnemonists, like Joshua Foer, use a wide variety of different locations to take advantage of the method. Foer claims not to be a savant, but just a well-practiced mnemonist. He also talks about "clearing" his mental location out after using, although I'm dubious that it genuinely "resets" his memory.

Of course, this really doesn't seem to do much for the competitive mnemonists beyond memory tricks. It seems like the crux of your question is whether or not mnemonics help for long term learning or not. While there isn't a lot of evidence to support long-term effects one way or another (hmmm...I may have to look into that, though!) my own expectation would be that they can for some things. Many know the mnemonic "Every Good Boy Does Fine" for the musical notes along the lines of staff paper (EGBDF) and similar ones (as with memorizing the order of planets). These can be very long-lasting mnemonics.

Another question may be the amount of information remember, as some mnemonics seem to really limit the number of items you can remember. The real issue may not be about how well the information is encoded, although that may be part of it, but how well information can be retrieved. These tricks might help a little on encoding but their real power is in providing you with cues to the items you want to remember.

Do they work? Yes, they really do. You can't re-use the same tricks infinitely, but you can simultaneously use a wide variety of tricks. These tricks will probably be the most useful for remembering lists of things too. They don't promise a real depth of understanding, just an easy access to the information when you need it later.

  • not to mention i before e except after c, my very eager mother just served us nine pizzas (Pluto we miss you), Current flows alphabetically, anode to cathode. I personally use a memory castle to remember numbers or lists. I still remember my home depot list from 3 months ago, but I tend to remember things long term anyways if I can create an emotional connection. – avwa Apr 29 '11 at 3:25
  • @avwa That particular one seem to be wrong though. See: dlewis.net/nik-archives/i-before-e-except-after-c – Kit Sunde Jan 6 '12 at 6:24
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    @avwa, My very easy method, just set up nine planets (oh. wait, 8) – picakhu Jul 26 '12 at 18:17

It's easier than you might guess to clear the "memory room". I've been learning memory techniques for the past year (as I get older, it seems like a smart thing to train). Whenever I create a new list, the items are usually of a particular sort, which helps to distinguish from another list. The only time it gets a bit confusing is when I have two very similar lists (grocery, to pick a recent example). I "highlight" the different associations in some way, I might give them a distinctive tag based on the date, for example.

I also do walkthroughs of a clean, unassociated room from time to time.

From my experience, the brain handles this kind of partitioning fairly easily. I can't remember the problem being addressed in any memory book that I've read, though.

A more powerful technique is based on numbers. A particular word, is associated with each number, from one to up as high as you like. Then for a list, you associate the number word to the item, then that item to the next number word. The "clearing" problem doesn't come up, as each chain is unique.

  • Thanks for responding. I've tried the number system (pegging) but found that it had the same interference problems. – Allain Lalonde Mar 12 '11 at 15:23
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    Oh, thanks, now I'm getting confused. I'm now trying adding a date to the beginning of the sequence. So far, so good. – Nthaoe May 25 '11 at 1:49

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