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.