Verbal Mnemonics

Memory Cues: Types of Visual Mnemonics Explained

Visual mnemonics, as its name aptly suggests, can be defined as memory strategies that employ interactive visual imagery to assist recall of a series of items on a list. Thus, they consist in remembering by pictures. These may be mental images or actual pictures. For example, one can transform a name into a visual image and remember the image in order to recall the name.

To make clear this idea, a famous author shared, “I once visited a beautiful Dutch Island off the Friesan coast and had difficulty remembering its name: ‘Schiemonnikoog.’ In English this sounds rather like ‘Sheer monarch oak,’ so I made an image of a sheer (very tall and steep) monarch (a king size) oak. I always remember the name of this Island now even though I do not always remember the correct Dutch spelling.”

For people who find images difficult, a real picture can be used instead. A patient who could not remember the names of his therapist or neighbors learned them by practicing with drawings. The name “Julian” was captured by drawing a “jewel on a lion.” The man was shown the drawing and the mnemonic was explained to him.

The drawing was removed and after a few minutes he was asked to recall the name of this neighbor. He thought for a while and pointed to the place on the table where the drawing had been. He then said, “A dog? No. A bull? No. It was a … a … a lion. On the side was a stone? No, not a stone it was … a … a jewel! Jewel lion—Julian!” Over time he became quicker at recalling Julian.

A few weeks later, the patient was asked to describe how he learned names: “Can you tell me how you learned the name of your neighbor?” He replied, “Julian?” “Yes,” the instructor said. “Oh, I’ve always known that,” he responded.

A more sophisticated version of imagery is the face-name association. Suppose we want to remember the name of “Mrs. Crossley.”

  • The first step is to find a prominent feature of Mrs. Crossley’s face. If her ears are particularly noticeable, we could select this as the prominent feature.
  • The next step is to transform her name into something meaningful, so “Crossley” could be transformed into “cross” (as in “angry”) “lea-”f, or a leaf in the shape of a cross.
  • The final step is to link the distinctive feature with the transformed name, so a cross leaf could be imagined growing out of her ears.

The next time one meets Mrs. Crossley one would scan her face, notice her ears, and then recapture the image of the cross leaf.

As we’ve seen, visual imagery can be effective when linking names to faces. Yet another variation on visual imagery is interactive visual imagery whereby one creates an image of the first word or object to be remembered (e.g., a box of matches) and links this with the second object to be remembered (e.g., a yacht). Then the second object (yacht) is linked with the third, the third with the fourth, and so on. In Wilson (1987), this method proved superior to the no-strategy method but not significantly different from the method of loci method or the first-letter mnemonic method and significantly poorer than the story method.

Yet another kind of visual mnemonic is the visual peg method. In peg systems, a standard set of peg words are learned and items to be remembered are linked to the pegs by means of visual imagery. The best known peg system is the rhyming peg method whereby the numbers one to 10 are associated with rhymes such as

  • “one is a bun’ two is a shoe; three is a tree; four is a door; five is a hive; six is sticks; seven is heaven; eight is a gate; nine is a line, and 10 is a hen.”

The first item to be remembered is then linked with a bun, the second with a shoe, and so on. This memory aid is useful when writing a list is impractical (e.g., while driving). So, for example, if I want to give something to my secretary, I imagine her sitting on top of a giant bun holding the paper I want to give her. If I then need to mail a videotape to a patient, I imagine the video tape stuffed into a shoe, and so on. This works well for me, and I retain the images until the tasks are completed or until I need to start again with new tasks.

It would be difficult for people with severe memory problems to complete these steps, however, and the method is probably of little value in real-life situations for the majority of those with organic memory deficits (Tate, 1997). Nevertheless, Kaschel et al. (2002; Kaschel, 2003) suggested that people with severe memory deficits can be successfully treated with simple mnemonics such as visual imagery, so success is not limited to those with mild problems.

Another effective visual mnemonic is the method of loci (or remembering by place). During application of the loci method, an interactive image is developed to join the image of each of the individual items on a list to the image of each of a series of familiar, physical locations (loci). See here Opens in new window.