The Dark Side of Mnemonics

What if mnemonics (memory prompts) actually _weaken_ your memory?

For years, I’ve been using and talking about mnemonics, those magical little memory prompts that seem capable of locking anything into your mind. But I’ve slowly begun to wonder whether mnemonics are the wrong approach altogether.

Mnemonics rely on taking something “boring” (the thing you want to learn) and attaching it to something “interesting” (a crazy, bright, colorful, loud mnemonic). You remember the interesting mnemonic, which leads you to the more elusive (boring) fact.

Mnemonics Make Extra Work

One obvious drawback is the extra overhead. Making and thinking about mnemonics takes work. Even though I’ve long considered mnemonics one of the two “basics” of memorizing, I’ve also considered them a last resort.

I used hundreds of mnemonics to memorize the entire Gospel of Mark, verse by verse. At first, the success astounded me. But as time wore on, I began to tire of navigating my “memory palace” (an old house) to hunt up individual verses. The whole process felt like drudgery.

So I dropped the mnemonics and the verse numbers, and began to say the text as stories. More time on the text itself, less time on mnemonic overhead.

But the mnemonics didn’t leave.

Some Mnemonics Won’t Go Away

Today, when I recite Mark, where does my mind still go? Back to that bedroom, hallway, or basement where I stored the old mnemonics.

True, mnemonics don’t much interfere with abstract thinking about the words. Nor with hearing the rhythms. But my mental images are boring at best. They are exquisitely random, but by now, they’re automatic, almost “natural”. They block a full experience of the verses — my imagination is already occupied.

With effort, I can imagine the actual scenes. But I have much mental work to undo.

The “Test” Mentality Masks the Problem

Why did it take me years to see this problem? Because it’s interior. And my first two decades of “thinking” focused on exterior tests. Teachers wanted to know if I could write out specific information. They didn’t much care what was going on inside me.

Mnemonics dovetail neatly into tests. Tests prioritize disconnected bits of information. Mnemonics match this dynamic. In both cases, you focus on the output — on whether you can recall a specific, quantifiable snippet.

And in both cases, you completely ignore the deeper meanings. Why think about this? What does it connect to? How does this enrich your understanding of the larger world? How is it valuable in itself?

These answers can’t be quantified, or even easily articulated. Each of us will give different answers.

If, like me, you grew up taking tests, you’re so excited at getting (almost) perfect “scores” that it takes awhile to sense this problem. But the score is the problem. Mnemonics focus you on whether you remember, not on the thing itself.

And flashcard programs like Anki, which I’ve long considered the second and more important “memory basic”, have a similar problem.

But it gets worse.

Mnemonics May Weaken Your Memory?

Yesterday, I came across an entirely new idea: that mnemonics may weaken your natural memory.


I must have heard this before, but if so, I don’t remember it (oddly enough).

I’ve read any number of criticisms of mnemonics: that they don’t work, that they’re a waste of time. But that mnemonics weaken your memory?

That would be a radical paradigm shift.

And yet … after years of working with mnemonics, the idea has a strange resonance. The more I think I need a mnemonic to remember anything, the less likely I am to try to remember without mnemonics.

What if mnemonics become a self-fulfilling prophecy? I think I can’t remember without them, so I can’t?

(Sometimes my mind seems insanely pliable. I’m not only building the house I live in, but the tools are shaping themselves in my hands as I build.)

Solution: Attention? Thinking?

What if the whole dichotomy of hard vs. easy to remember is a complete misdirection? What if, instead of trying to bolt on “easy” mnemonics, I should be examining, illuminating, connecting, understanding, and basically thinking about the actual “hard” material?

I came across this quote in another book:

Attention Develops Interest. — When it is said that attention will not take a firm hold on an uninteresting thing, we must not forget that any one not shallow and fickle can soon discover something interesting in most objects. Here cultivated minds show their especial superiority, for the attention which they are able to give generally ends in finding a pearl in the most uninteresting looking oyster. When an object necessarily loses interest from one point of view, such minds discover in it new attributes. The essence of genius is to present an old thing in new ways, whether it be some force in nature or some aspect of humanity.

Reuben Post Halleck, Psychology and Psychic Culture (1900)

Today, the obvious “memory culture”, such as it is, centers around mnemonic feats, like memorizing multiple decks of cards, as fast as possible, at the World Memory Championship.

Impressive. But ultimately … useless?

I’m not ready to give up on mnemonics just yet. I feel like they may have a place somewhere. If nothing else, your first mnemonic escapades prove that you can remember at will.

But what if the secret isn’t the mnemonic itself, but the attention you give it?

Away from the spotlight, a rich vein of lesser known memory literature lies waiting to be explored. In this school of thought, mnemonics are a distraction. Yes, you can keep what you learn, but through attention and thinking.

Could it be that simple? I’ll keep you posted.

11 Replies to “The Dark Side of Mnemonics”

  1. How we use them…
    I see your point Bill, and you’ve raised some alarming questions. I’ve only been delving into mnemonics for a short while now but have come across some of these findings during that time.

    However, I recall being distraught about this same problem a few weeks back and spent some time configuring my thoughts into a journal entry. Why am I using mnemonics? Are they beneficial or destructive substitutes for actually memory?

    The conclusion I came upon (which is at least partially satisfying but will most likely not quell some of the concerns you’ve raised!) is that my use of mnemonics is only a short-term means to long-term retention. If A is the mnemonic device I’ve created to more easily remember B, the goal should be to continually let A fade and B strengthen. Mnemonics (for me) have been helpful in the “initialization phase” of memory; maintaining them longer than that short period of time in which humans generally struggle does seem to be a possibly destructive process.

    For example, when first memorizing the Rene Descartes quote: “Conquer yourself rather than the world,” I had arranged a bizarre scene to overcome my memory’s fallibility in grasping an initial memorization of the quote. I placed “Descartes Quote about Hope” into a flashcard database and it popped up every now and again. Each time I attempted to recall, I first struggled to do so WITHOUT tapping into the memory palace I had created. At first, I’d stumble and resort back to the palace. But, as time went on and I continued with this process, the palace began to fade. It’s been perhaps two-three weeks since I memorized the quote and I couldn’t tell you the contents of a single locus. Thus, (I think…) the quote is now contained within my NATURAL memory. There are no external devices tugging away at it, sapping it of its meaning.

    I try to think of mnemonics as a temporary, the-quicker-it-fades-the-better sort of device. Just my input. I’d be happy to hear what you think!

    Miles (sorry for grammar mistakes; I’ve got to leave for work!)

    1. Thanks for the
      Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

      Ultimately, I agree with the previous poster that most mnemonic aids tend to fall away. I have poems stored in locations/journeys and can’t for the life of me remember how that I built them there using primarily association, and yet I can whip them off all the same simply by walking through the rooms.


      1. Miles and Anthony, thanks for
        Miles and Anthony, thanks for your thoughts!

        I’ve definitely experienced the “fading” that you talk about. What surprises me is how often the mnemonics *don’t* fade. Or if they do fade, so does the information. The fading seems unpredictable.

        After years of working with mnemonics, I’m actually excited at the idea that they might be completely unnecessary. It’s a paradox. Maybe mnemonics are necessary or helpful at the beginning, to help train mental powers of focus and imagery?

        But, for instance, for the short Descartes quote you mention, Miles, I think you could experiment with just reading and repeating the line, and you’d find it would stick very quickly. That’s the other thing about mnemonics — they can be a lot of work!

        Thanks again for your comments, it’s great to hear how others are using these things.

  2. Good things can be abused.
    Essentially every good thing can be abused. There are hyperhidration or water poisoning, that happens, when you drink too much water. Does that mean that water is bad. Not at all. Same with mnemonics. using mnemonics to remember formulas in physics, math and other sciences, is crazy. You must understand it and after that no mnemonics is needed. But what about passwords for instance? You can’t understand you password, that’s the point of a good password, isn’t it? If you create something like 123456 or abcd skilled hacker would hack it with bare hands in matter of minutes. Of course there are some topics where is not that clear if you should understand it or just memorize it, however I don’t see any harm in mnemonics, only benefits when used wisely.

    1. Good point — passwords are
      Good point — passwords are just the kind of one-off scenario where a mnemonic can be helpful. What I’m talking about here is using mnemonics as a general approach to learning and thinking. This is an approach I’ve been excited about myself for years. Slowly, painfully, I’ve come to realize that mnemonics (and [flashcards](/content/how-flashcards-fail-confessions-tired-memory-guy)) may not the secret solution for improving memory and thought.

      Incidentally, for passwords, I recommend [diceware]( Three or four _random_ words make a password that is astoundingly strong, as [this xkcd comic]( points out.

  3. Levels of Processing & The real point of learning

    Cool posts! I recently got interested in Anki through where it seems to be a bit of a religion, and I was thinking, “Sure you can memorize the list of cognitive biases, but can you really avoid making the mistake when it comes to it?” I’m pretty sure I’ve read about that in my psych class but couldn’t remember what the name of the effect was called, amusingly.

    Anyhoo, in this post in particular, you seem to be touching on the levels of processing effect. In some studies they had people memorize how certain words sounded, looked or meant. Then they were tested and it was discovered that their ability to remember it only applied to whether they were tested in the same modality. IE if you asked people to answer a test based on how words sounded but they’d studied how they looked, they did badly.

    Thought it might be relevant.

    RT Wolf

    1. Thanks much! That looks like
      Thanks much! That looks like a fascinating set of studies to look into. And also intrigues me.

      Of course, if someone’s studying for a multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank test, Anki might be _perfect_, since it closely approximates the test-taking experience. But thinking is quite different.

      Thanks again.

  4. Absolutely!
    Yeah, I agree. Svereski [sic?] or people with eidetic imagery could not only recall where they paused and coughed when reciting a passage, but they could/can also see the crisp and crinkled yellow tinted dog-ear. In so called “memory tests” or “olympiad” obviously they won’t ask you those things. Rather “just the facts.” But think about it. What IS photographic memory? It’s recalling EVERYTHING. Some may ask an adept to recall the third word of fourth para but ‘normal’ people’s mind doesn’t work that away. Fine, he knows the answer then was the t in the third word of second line missing a blurry serif or not?

    So Bill I have to say attention is the key thing. I think the Buddhists hit it close to home when they talked about Mindfulness Meditation. Also, there are so many types of memory. Memory palaces won’t help you remember so much: plumbing layout, locksmith drill bits, chemistry formulaes, electrical designs. You need a memory layout for each layout thus defeating the whole purpose. (Sorry never was a fan of Joshua Foer fan club).

    Thanks! And you should continue this memory blog.

  5. Interesting Points!
    You raise some interesting points here! I came across this article when I googled “mnemonics don’t work”. I think I might be one of the “lucky” ones with a near eidetic memory, but I was looking for ways to clear the clutter as I am currently learning vocab for multiple languages and don’t want to confuse them. Rather than help however, I have found that mnemonics over complicate and I get bogged down in the story, forgetting the original purpose. I have taken to drawing mind maps connecting the vocabulary and have found this far more useful!

  6. Pure Memory
    Our brain space is too valuable to be cluttered with memory tricks, however impressive or useful for short term benefits!
    Animal memory is pure in that they can recall their environment, and strategies to survive! A specific smelly urine trace amongst thousands of other smelly urines = a threatening rival! Or another smell for a potential mate in heat? Useful food has to be recognised / not confused, weather clues and seasons have to be recognised and prepared for!
    Animals however basic compared to our “superior brains” have a mindful of useful information, where we need written info storage or trained expert reference sources!
    If these animal talents are dismissed as “instinct” , then ok I want to develop my memory, knowledge and skills along these lines. Unfortunately, we have been sidetracked into memory tricks, and prescribed (*) knowledge!
    I am looking for Instinctive Memory, which can be sorted and classified. A child learns a language instinctively, it can speak grammatically before learning grammar…
    I want to develop my pure memory, a never before seen picture of my past brings back words said at the time? I did not pay attention or mnemonically store these words, but they were in my brain along with trillions of other word sentences or thoughts

  7. I don’t know if you supported me or I support me
    Actually I have been feeling the same since long after teaching mnemonic systems to thousands of people. I have seen it working initially to give confidence that a huge amount of data can be memorized. It also helped me teach more than thousand senior citizens to give them a confidence that there life is not getting low because of weakening memory. I taught them the journey system and every body praised my efforts to give them confidence. I used music and meditation to help retain data in memory, but I am still in search of best systems that help retain data. Some time I even re-discovered that the old school system of rote learning also has a point.

    I am working to figure out tricks that help me solve my problems of day to day issues. For e.g. I do not want to connect a weird picture to remember wishing happy birthday to a friend. Mobile reminders are a better solution. But I do want to remember automatically that there are two more days left to pay my mobile bill. I feel storage time connection that mnemonics allowed me should in some way be connected to need automation rather than an extra cognitive load of mnemonics.

    I am still figuring out whether bigger problem is storage time method, storage quality or retrieval techniques. I hope medical research will give me some answer.

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