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Use Your Best Mnemonics

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The brain is not like a sponge absorbing information until it eventually becomes saturated. It is a vast network of complex interconnections. Memory works in the same way.

Every new fact or concept you learn adds to and links up with the existing network. So when you encode something new, it not only forms a link to the existing network, it also provides yet another hook onto which still more associations can be hung or connected. So the more you learn and remember, the greater is your capacity for future learning and remembering.

Think back to an important joyous (or even traumatic) event in your life. You will certainly remember at least some of your surroundings at the time, or a physical sensation that went with the experience. Most people remember where they were when they heard that John Kennedy or Elvis Presley had died. Memory involves associations. If you want to create strong memory, create strong associations.

In 1972 H.R. Lindsay and D.A. Norman introduced a fascinating concept in a book called "Human Information Processing". They called it a 'Semantic Network' and it was a pictorial representation of how memory works.

From a central idea, the brain does not process thoughts in a straight line logical sequence (the left brain might, but the whole brain does not).

Instead, it brings in ideas at a tangent as connections are sparked and associations triggered. The process can be illustrated as follows:
Let us start with a simple central idea or word ........ `Table'. The following sequence of ideas/words came to the author in the space of just thirty seconds from being given the concept of `Table'.

The sequence was -

Table / Chair / Legs / Girl / Dress / Arms / Touch / Fingers / Spread

Freud would doubtless have been delighted with my sequence, since he first developed and regularly used the method of free association to uncover underlying sexual themes and his patients thoughts. I clearly lost no time in connecting the concept of a table and chair, via legs, to a girl. No wonder the prudish Victorians often put skirts on their tables!

The way in which this sequence of ideas or words actually developed, can be pictorialised as follows. It is a reasonable approximation of how the brain and memory typically work, forming associations and connections, some verbal, some visual, and some with both visual and action associations. Direct sensory associations - here both visual and kinaesthetic (i.e. concerned with touch), follow each other like scenes in a dream.

Now without going through the entire thought process, (or revealing too much of the inner workings of the authors mind!) the thirty second sequence was:

  1. Table - immediately associated with chair.
  2. Chair - has legs
  3. A Girl - has legs
  4. A Girl often wears a dress
  5. Mental picture of girl characteristically with arms held aloft as she puts on (or takes off) a dress.
  6. The arms were a strong feature of the mental picture.
  7. Arms are generally smooth and pleasant to touch
  8. Touch involves fingers
  9. Mental picture of fingers spread open
  10. Link back to girl whose arms were spread aloft.

In just 30 seconds there were some five mental images generated and nine separate words were triggered from the original, fairly neutral word 'Table'.

If Lindsay and Norman were the first to suggest that pictorial associative networks set down ideas in the way that memory actually works, Tony Buzan has been the person most closely identified with the popularising of them as 'Mind Maps'.

We have developed even further the concept of visualising information in the same way that the brain does. We have developed what we call "Memory Maps". These act not simply as a way of revising information when it has already been learnt but as a way of creating memory (i.e. learning) in the first place. If information can be presented in a visual and connected form, (as was the sequence above from chair to spread), then we clearly have a device that not only incorporates visualisation, but actually and accurately reproduces the way in which the brain works. The information is pre-digested in the form the memory can most easily assimilate.

You will learn much more of the power of memory maps later in this book.

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