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Forgetting things? Mnemonics can make them stick

  • Story Highlights
  • Greek poet Simonides begat mnemonics -- system for recalling facts, names, etc.
  • Author: "Sweet stuff" is tip to remembering when to use dessert or desert
  • There's more to mnemonics than tricks and acronyms
  • The best kind of mnemonic uses interactive images, says UCLA professor

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By Paul Frysh
CNN
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(CNN) -- Arriving at your uncle's holiday party in suitable dress and good cheer, you are greeted at the door by an old friend from school whose name, you suddenly realize, you cannot recall.

There are effective word connections you can make to help you remember things.

There are effective word connections you can make to help you remember things.

You've known him for 20 years. You played baseball with him, went on family trips together. You were at his wedding, for goodness' sake.

It's too embarrassing to ask his name, so as he waits awkwardly for an introduction to your significant other, you just stand there dully, waiting for the roof to cave in.

Well the roof did just that at a party in Greece in the fifth century B.C., killing all in attendance except for Simonides of Ceos, who had serendipitously stepped outside at just the right moment.

Simonides, however, had no such problem with names.

He was able to identify the bodies, which had been damaged beyond recognition, simply by recalling where each one sat.

And thus, says Judy Parkinson in a book titled "i before e (except after c)," Simonides begat a system for memorizing and recalling facts, called mnemonics.

Parkinson's book is a gathering of tricks, rhymes and riddles for remembering anything from names to rules of grammar and spelling, to science, math and music.

Can't remember when to use "affect" as opposed to "effect"? Simple says Parkinson: Just remember RAVEN: Remember Affect Verb Effect Noun (This only helps, of course, if you remember how to spell "raven").

After dinner, will you be having dessert or desert? To avoid after-dinner sand, says Parkinson, remember the double s stands for "sweet stuff."

But there's more to mnemonics than tricks and acronyms.

The best kind of mnemonic, says Robert Bjork, distinguished professor of cognitive psychology at UCLA, is one you make up yourself using interactive images.

A common method is to associate locations along a well-traveled path, like a school or work route, with items on a list. The Greeks called this the Method of Loci.

It's not enough, however, to associate a flagpole on your route with a giraffe on your list. To be truly effective, says Bjork, the giraffe must DO something with the flagpole.

"It should be interactive with the location as much as possible. If you imagine a giraffe, you imagine the giraffe climbing the pole rather than just standing there."

Another interactive device, a "peg-word" system, uses a rhyme as a kind of template to associate with items on a list. To use Bjork's example:

"One is a bun

Two is a shoe

Three is a tree ..."

And so on.

An apple on your list goes in the bun, a quart of milk goes in the shoe, a honey-baked ham hangs on the tree. You can reuse the same rhyme for different lists.

Interactive mnemonic devices like these can be very effective, says Bjork.

"In fact it is remarkably long-lived. If I have my students remember 20 items around UCLA campus, they'll remember 19 of them a week later."

The more you use the mnemonic, the better it will work. In fact, says Bjork, recall is one of the best ways to reinforce any kind of memory -- repeated recall leads to easier recall.

Still, with or without mnemonics, we simply forget things more easily as we get older, says Dr. James Lah, associate professor of neurology at Emory University.

It's perfectly natural, says Lah, to start forgetting things that were easy to remember at a younger age -- "senior moments."

But what if you keep forgetting things -- where you put your keys, the name of the person you just met at a party, the names of your co-worker's children -- should this be cause for concern?

"Not necessarily," says Lah.

"What people talk about when they talk about senior moments is really just a commonplace experience that does not necessarily imply something else going on as far as disease."

So how do you know when a memory lapse is a serious problem as opposed to just a nuisance?

"If you meet the new pastor's wife and you immediately forget her name -- [or] you see her the next day and you can't recall her name, that's not necessarily a reflection of a problem," says Lah. "It's a commonplace annoyance that increases with age."

"If you meet the pastor's wife and the next day can't recall having met her, that may be an indication of a more serious problem."

Besides mnemonics, which Lah recommends, there are other things you can do to keep those senior moments to a minimum.

There is evidence to suggest that if you take care of your cardiovascular health by eating right and exercising, your neurological health will also benefit.

"There is a direct correlation between cardiovascular health and neurological health and especially cognitive aging," says Lah.

The reasons are complex, says Lah, but when you have bad cardiovascular health, "the efficiency of communication between brain cells is eroded."

"So that's one of the reasons people in their 30s, 40s and 50s should be paying attention to [cardiovascular] diseases."

How, you may ask, does all this help you at your uncle's party with your old and seemingly nameless friend?

Find out his name from someone else and start working on a mnemonic. For example, if his name is Charlie, remember you deserve a "charlie-horse" for forgetting his name.

Imagine giving the charlie-horse to your significant other for an even more effective, "interactive" memory.

And remember, recall reinforces recall, so the more often you give your significant other a charlie-horse -- real or imagined -- the more likely you are to remember Charlie's name in the future.

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