Introduction to mnemonics

What mnemonics are, and what they are for

Aids to memory such as acronyms, rhymes, linking information by creating visual images or making up a story, are called mnemonics. Mnemonic strategies have been recommended as appropriate for remembering the following types of information:

  • shopping lists
  • vocabulary
  • appointments
  • speeches
  • facts
  • names & faces
  • dates
  • phone numbers
  • ideas
  • jokes
  • dramatic parts
  • poems
  • numbers

Mnemonics are undoubtedly effective for rote memorization, but they do require a lot of work to master.

Mnemonics can also help you learn basic facts and new vocabulary, which you need to acquire when learning a new subject. However, mastering a subject is not simply a matter of knowing a lot. An expert has a well-organized network of memory codes into which new information can be easily integrated. Mnemonic techniques on their own do not help you understand the meaning of facts, and do not therefore help you develop expertise in a subject.

Moreover, although mnemonics are usually the best strategies for memorizing by rote, for most tasks there are easier strategies which are sufficiently effective to be preferable for many people:

  • written or electronic records
  • rote repetition

The value of lists

For many tasks and for most people, a written list is far less effort, far more likely to be used, and far more reliable.

Many people discard the idea of lists because they have found they usually forget to use them. However, research has confirmed what many of us already know from experience — even if you forget to refer to your list, you are much more likely to recall items that you have written down. The act of writing (and perhaps the opportunity to visualize your list) are sufficient to improve your memory.

Imagery in mnemonics

Visual imagery underlies most mnemonic strategies. The best known are the list-learning strategies — the method of loci, the pegword method, and the link method. While these are undoubtedly effective strategies, they perhaps have less value as general strategic tools than the transformational elaborative strategies — the keyword method, and face-name association.

The role of imagery in helping memory is largely misunderstood (see the myth of imagery). Methods that use words rather than images have been shown to be equally effective. Imagery has one major advantage, and that is the ease with which two items can be connected using imagery. Imagery also has one major disadvantage, and that is the difficulty many people have with creating images.

Verbal mnemonic strategies include the use of acronyms, rhymes, and the more complex coding method (for memorizing numbers) and the story method (the verbal equivalent of the linking mnemonic).

When it’s best to use a mnemonic

  • when information only need to be remembered for a short time
  • as a reminder for well-learned information (to help overcome memory blocks; to remind you of the order of information)
  • when written records are impossible, inconvenient, or inappropriate
  • to anchor facts

When it’s best to write something down

  • when you need to remember the information for a long time
  • when reliability and accuracy are important
  • when memory load is to be avoided
  • when information is coming at you too fast
  • when the information is too complex



  • Belleza, F.S. 1983. Mnemonic-device instruction with adults. In Pressley, M. & Levin, J.R. (eds.) Cognitive strategy research: Psychological foundations. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Bransford, J.D., Stein, B.S., Vye, N.J., Franks, J.J., Auble, P.M., Mezynski, K.J. & Perfetto, G.A. 1982. Differences in approaches to learning: an overview. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 111, 390-398.
  • Intons-Peterson, M.J. & Newsome, G.L. III. 1992. External memory aids: effects and effectiveness. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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The myth of imagery

  • Images are effective to the extent that they link information.
  • Images are not inherently superior to words.
  • Bizarre images are not necessarily recalled better than common images.
  • Imagery is chiefly effective when used with an organizing structure.

Most mnemonic strategies are based on imagery. There is no doubt that imagery can be an effective tool, but there is nothing particularly special about imagery. The advantage of imagery is that it provides an easy way of connecting information that is not otherwise readily connected. However, providing verbal links can be equally effective.

The critical element is that words or images provide a context which links the information. Thus, imagery is only effective when it is an interactive image — one which ties together one bit of information with another.

Visual imagery on its own is of limited value without an organizing structure, such as the method of loci or the pegword method (see list-learning mnemonics).

It is usually emphasized that bizarre images are remembered much better, but there is no evidence for this. In many studies indeed, ordinary images are remembered slightly better. One of the problems is that people tend usually find it harder to create bizarre images. Unless you have a natural talent for thinking up bizarre images, it is probably not worth bothering about.

Further reading:

for a long, scholarly article on mental imagery, you can see the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at:


  • Belleza, F.S. 1983. Mnemonic-device instruction with adults. In Pressley, M. & Levin, J.R. (eds.) Cognitive strategy research: Psychological foundations. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Bower, G.H. 1972. Mental imagery and associative learning. In L.W. Gregg (ed.) Cognition in learning and memory. New York: Wiley.
  • Morris, P.E. 1978. Sense and nonsense in traditional mnemonics. In M.M. Gruneberg, P.E. Morris & R.N. Sykes (eds.) Practical aspects of memory. London: Academic Press.

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Keyword method

Guide to Use

  • Very effective for learning the meanings of words
  • Not particularly effective for remembering the words themselves
  • Most effective when you are supplied with the keyword, but create your own image
  • Particularly suited for learning:

How the keyword method works

The keyword method has been especially pushed as an effective strategy for learning foreign vocabulary. It is presumably equally valuable for extending your native-language vocabulary and learning technical jargon, and has also been used successfully to teach social studies facts (e.g., the products of a country; capital cities), science facts (e.g., chemical reactions, parts of the skeletal and nervous systems) and the names and faces of people.

There are two stages to the method:

  • link the foreign word with an English word that sounds like some part of the foreign word (e.g., the Spanish carta sounds like the English cart). This (cart) is the keyword.
  • link the keyword with the English meaning of the foreign word by forming an interactive image (e.g., carta means letter, so you could visualize a letter inside a cart).

When not to use the keyword method

If you want to understand what a word means when you come across it the keyword method is probably the best memory strategy. However if your goal is an ability to produce the word, rote repetition is better. In other words, your letter in the cart will help you remember what carta means when you come across it, but it won’t necessarily help you recall the Spanish word for letter.

Similarly, if you learn that Canberra is the capital of Australia by visualizing a can on top of a map of Australia, you should find it easy to answer “What is Canberra the capital of?”, but less easy to answer “What is the capital of Australia?”.

Remembering backwards

Although the keyword component of the word is much more likely to be recalled (the cart part of carta; the can part of Canberra), any word with that component seems equally possible.

To remember that carta means letter you need to:

  • Derive the keyword from the word (cart from carta).
  • Derive the interactive image from the keyword (letter in cart from cart).
  • Derive the meaning from the image (letter, from letter in cart).

Clearly, the more obvious your original encoding, the easier it will be to recreate the process (cart is an obvious keyword for carta; pet is not quite so obvious for pequenos).

However, to remember the Spanish word for letter, you must:

  • Retrieve the interactive image (letter in cart, from letter).
  • Use the image to derive the keyword (cart, from letter in cart).
  • Use the keyword to derive the foreign word (carta from cart).

While carta might seem easily derived from cart, other associations are not likely to be so easy — imagine trying to derive pequenos from pet or peck.

The keyword method is very effective for linking a new fact to a well-learned fact, but is little help in recalling the new fact itself.

Learn faster not better

The main advantage of the keyword mnemonic over other strategies for remembering information of this type, is that you acquire the information faster. But not better. Learning new words in a meaningful context is an equally effective strategy for long-term recall.

Read more:

Retrieval practice & the keyword mnemonic

Using the keyword method to learn vocabulary

Keywords for common Māori words


  • Belleza, F.S. 1983. Mnemonic-device instruction with adults. In Pressley, M. & Levin, J.R. (eds.) Cognitive strategy research: Psychological foundations. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Pressley, M., Levin, J.R., Hall, J.W., Miller, G.E. & Berry, J.K. 1980. The keyword method and foreign word acquisition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 163-173.
  • Wang, A.Y. & Thomas, M.H. 1995. Effect of keywords on long-term retention: help or hindrance? Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 468-475.

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The Art of Memory

Frances Yates described the memory strategy valued by the ancient Greeks and Romans as the "Art of Memory" in her widely quoted and seminal book The Art of Memory. Today we know it as the method of loci. But the Art of Memory, as those of the ancient world and those of the medieval world practiced it, is far richer than is implied by that title.

It is known to us from three Roman sources – Cicero, an anonymous work Ad C. Herennium libri IV, and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria. The strategy itself, although developed by many in later centuries, has always been attributed to Simonides, a Greek of the 5th century B.C. Cicero emphasizes that Simonides is given the credit for the art of memory not simply because he discovered how important order is for memory, but also because of his emphasis on the importance of visualization.

The original concept of Simonides, as encapsulated in the much-quoted and memorable story associated with this discovery, was simple enough. As the story goes (abbreviated version), Simonides was called out of a banqueting hall and during his absence, there was an earthquake and the hall collapsed, killing everyone inside. The destruction was so great the bodies couldn't be identified, but Simonides visualized where everyone was sitting, and so enabled the bodies to be identified.

Order and imagery. The twin staples of mnemonics.

But the truly interesting aspect of this is how this simple idea was developed over the centuries. And the meaning (indeed, multiple meanings) it developed.

According to Mary J. Carruthers in her wonderful work The Book of Memory: A study of memory in medieval culture, medieval European scholasticism was fundamentally memorial. Now this is not particularly surprising - books were handwritten, and obviously far less available than now.

But Carruthers points to something far more interesting - a trained memory was considered moral.

Following the Roman rhetorician Cicero (deeply admired by the medieval scholars), memory was considered to be one of the "virtues", and necessary to develop a moral character. Hence the rote learning so despised in our modern age: schoolchildren learned by heart the wise sayings of great men, so that they could also develop wisdom. Only by making moral arguments part of your character, known so well that the words are engraved in your heart, could you become moral.

I can see their point. Doubtless it is no coincidence that, today, this type of learning tends to occur only in fundamentalist religious education. Nor that its absence in education appears to have gone hand-in-hand with a disavowal of any sort of moral instruction. But the association of morality with memory is a fascinating and, to me at least, unexpected one.

Because of this association with morality, so fundamental to the medieval mind, mnemonic strategies were part of education, part of writing - books (according to Carruthers) were decorated for memorability. She even suggests that Dante's great work, his description of the circles of Hell, was actually a mnemonic device, to help people remember the places and attributes of Hell. This is not as weird as it sounds (well actually it is), because people used such descriptions as "memory places" (loci). The grotesque (to modern eyes) and shocking sculptuary in churches, paintings, drawings seen in the margins of books, all these, Carruthers suggests, were not so much because of some inexplicable twist of the medieval mind, as because they were intent on following the mnemonic principles they had been taught - provoking emotional reactions to enhance memorability.

Indeed, this is one of the (many) ideas I have found particularly intriguing: there is great emphasis from these pre-modern writers about memory, on the need to involve the emotions, to get yourself into a state as it were.

This is a particularly interesting point, because it is largely overlooked in modern memory advice (including my own!). I think the reason it is overlooked is simply because of modern sensibilities. Western culture, especially the scholastic, de-emphasizes emotion. It is therefore fascinating to read Carruthers' accounts of the emotional "states" which some pre-modern scholars seemed to find it necessary to work themselves into, when memorizing. Perhaps most interesting is that these scholars did not make the modern distinction between memory for personal events and information, and memory for "facts" - they understood that, for more effective remembering, all information had to be made into a personal event.

All mnemonic advice stresses the benefits to be gained from forming memories as “scenes” that include personal associations. Hugh of St Victor, for instance, stresses the need to impress the circumstances during which something was memorized as part of the associational web needed to recall it: the sort of day it is, how one feels, the gestures and appearance of one's teacher, the appearance of the manuscript page, and so on.”
(Mary Carruthers: The Book of Memory, p60)

Of course, the emotional component of memory also has an effect through its effect on motivation.

Another thing that struck me was how much ancient and medieval scholars understood about the practical aspects of memory - an understanding which seems to have got lost in the intervening centuries, buried beneath more arcane and complicated mnemonic strategies.

The mystique of these strategies seems to appeal to something in the human mind - the very complexity hints at something special, something magical. I am not decrying mnemonic strategies; they are certainly effective. But the more complex ones do require a great deal of training to be used effectively, and few people really want to put that degree of effort into something that, while potentially useful, is not, for most of us, as useful as all that.

But there are effective memory strategies that don't require so much effort to master, and the pre-modern scholars (at least in early times) understood the basic principles that underlie these:

  • the need to break things up into manageable chunks
  • the need for complete concentration (indeed it was suggested that night time was the best time to engage in memory work, because of the quiet and lack of distraction)
  • the usefulness of reading aloud in a low murmur (if you ever saw the movie Yentl, you might recall the students learning the Talmud doing the same thing).

The need to break things up into manageable chunks is a piece of advice that doesn't seem to be emphasized much in the increasingly complex mnemonic schemes that developed much later, and yet it is probably the single most important principle.

As to exactly what people did to learn information, to make memorable associations, it was recognized that these were matters for the individual, that different methods suited different people (and of course, different materials and different purposes):

"All ancient mnemonic advice [counsels] that any learned technique must be adapted to individual preferences and quirks. One cannot use a “canned” system, nor will every system work equally well for everyone.”
(ibid, p64)

When you're looking for a method of learning that will suit you, emotional affinity is as important as any other factor.

References & further resources

Yates, Frances A. 1966. The Art of Memory (Amazon affiliate link)

Carruthers, Mary. 1990. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) New York: Cambridge University Press. (Amazon affiliate link)

Carruthers, Mary. 1998. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Amazon affiliate link)


reply by Carruthers:

A word of warning. Carruthers' books are not really aimed at the lay audience. Carruthers is clearly writing for her peers, those familiar with Latin and Greek, and the classic and medieval cultures.

Parts of this article originally appeared in the February and April 2002 newsletters.

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  • Doing more than one task at a time requires us to switch our attention rapidly between the tasks.
  • This is easier if the tasks don't need much attention.
  • Although we think we're saving time, time is lost when switching between tasks; these time costs increase for complex or unfamiliar tasks.
  • Both alcohol and aging affect our ability to switch attention rapidly.

A very common situation today, which is probably responsible for a great deal of modern anxiety about failing memory, is that where we're required to “multitask”, that trendy modern word for trying to do more than one thing at a time. It is a situation for which both the normal consequences of aging and low working memory capacity has serious implications.

There’s an old insult along the lines of “he can’t walk and chew gum”. The insult is a tacit acknowledgment that doing two things at the same time can put a strain on mental resources, and also recognizes (this is the insult part!) that well-practiced activities do not place as much demand on our cognitive resources. We can, indeed, do more than one task at a time, as long as only one of the tasks requires our attention. It is attention that can’t be split.

You may feel that you can, in fact, do two tasks requiring attention simultaneously. For example, talking on a cellphone and driving!

Not true.

What you are in fact doing, is switching your attention rapidly between the two tasks, and you are doing it at some cost.

How big a cost depends on a number of factors. If you are driving a familiar route, with no unexpected events (such as the car in front of you braking hard, or a dog running out on the road), you may not notice the deterioration in your performance. It also helps if the conversation you are having is routine, with little emotional engagement. But if the conversation is stressful, or provokes strong emotion, or requires you to think … well, any of these factors will impact on your ability to drive.

The ability to switch attention between tasks is regulated by a function called prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain appears to be particularly affected by aging, and also by alcohol. Thus, talking on a cellphone while driving drunk is a recipe for disaster! Nor do you have to actually be under the influence to be affected in this way by alcohol; impaired executive control is characteristic of alcoholics.

More commonly, we get older, and as we get older we become less able to switch attention fast.

The ability to switch attention is also related to working memory capacity.

But multitasking is not only a problem for older adults, or those with a low working memory capacity. A study [1] using young adults found that for all types of tasks, time was lost when switching between tasks, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs also were greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar.

Part of the problem in switching attention is that we have to change “rules”. Rule activation takes significant amounts of time, several tenths of a second — which may not sound much, but can mean the difference between life and death in some situations (such as driving a car), and which even in less dramatic circumstances, adds appreciably to the time it takes to do tasks, if you are switching back and forth repeatedly.

To take an example close to home, people required to write a report while repeatedly checking their email took half again as long to finish the report compared to those who didn't switch between tasks!

In other words, while multitasking may seem more efficient, it may not actually BE more efficient. It may in fact take more time in the end, and the tasks may of course be performed more poorly. And then there is the stress; switching between tasks places demands on your mental resources, and that is stressful. (And not only are we poorer at such task-switching as we age, we also tend to be less able to handle stress).

There is another aspect to multitasking that deserves mention. It has been speculated that rapid switching between tasks may impede long-term memory encoding. I don’t know of any research on this, but it is certainly plausible.

So, what can we do about it?

Well, the main thing is to be aware of the problems. Accept that multitasking is not a particularly desirably situation; that it costs you time and quality of performance; that your ability to multitask will be impeded by fatigue, alcohol, stress, emotion, distraction (e.g., don’t add to your problems by having music on as well); that your ability will also be impaired by age. Understand that multitasking involves switching attention between tasks, not simultaneous performance; and that it will therefore be successful to the extent that the tasks are familiar and well-practised.

This article originally appeared in the February 2005 newsletter.


Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E. & Evans, J.E. 2001. Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology - Human Perception and Performance, 27 (4), 763-797.

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Flashcards are cards with a word (or phrase) on one side and its translation on the other. You can buy ready-made flashcards, and these can certainly be helpful, particularly if you're inexperienced at learning another language. However, it is more effective if you make them yourself. Not only will the cards be customized to your own use, but the activity of selecting words and writing them down help you learn them.

A standard way of using flashcards is simply to go through a set number each day, separating out those you have trouble with, so you can review them more often. Keep these ones handy so that you can go through them at odd moments during the day when you're waiting for something.

Use the flashcards as a handy way to group words in different ways. Deal out the cards and move them around, looking for connections.

If you have word-family flashcards (recommended) - e.g., cards with various related forms of a word - you can make different sentences with your cards. You could also play cards with them, if you have others to play with. You could play a version of rummy, for example, where the sets are infinitive, present tense, future tense, past perfect. Use your imagination!

A bingo game with flashcards is another fun way to practice. Construct bingo cards (large cards divided into a certain number of spaces the same size as your flashcards) with the native language words on it. While this is better played with others, you can at a pinch play with yourself, simply picking out a flashcard from the pile and seeing how quickly you can match it with its counterpart.

Learning words in isolation will not help you much in dealing with words in context. You do need to practice reading/writing/speaking/listening sentences. But flashcards are a useful means of memorizing vocabulary.

Flashcard software

VTrain (Vocabulary Trainer): is flashcard software apparently used in the language labs of 40 Universities and hundreds of high schools; it's free for educational establishments. It's shareware.

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Mental stimulation

  • Growing evidence points to greater education, and mentally stimulating occupations and activities providing a cognitive reserve that enables people with developing Alzheimer's to function normally for longer.
  • There is also evidence that physical exercise and mental stimulation protect against the development of Alzheimer's, by preventing accumulation of beta-amyloid.
  • Physical exercise and mental stimulation also seem to help protect against age-related decline in cognitive function, possibly for similar reasons — by stimulating growth of new blood vessels and keeps existing vessels open and functional.
  • Mental stimulation is not only gained by more obvious intellectual pursuits, but also by activities as simple as talking to people or going to the theater.
  • Education also seems to help seniors retain their mental flexibility, enabling their brains to change strategies as age effects make different strategies more effective.

The evidence that diet, physical exercise, and mental stimulation all help prevent age-related cognitive decline and reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s, is now very convincing.

Studies of mice and (rather intriguingly) beagles, have provided evidence that ‘enriched’ environments — ones that provide opportunities for regular exercise and mental stimulation — reduce or prevent age-related cognitive decline, and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Studies of genetically engineered mice have also now shown how an enriched environment protects against Alzheimer’s — by preventing accumulation of beta-amyloid, and helping these peptides to be cleared away.

It’s been suggested that the benefits of physical and mental activity, which now seem undeniable, may simply be a matter of blood flow — that physical and mental activity stimulates growth of new blood vessels and keeps existing vessels open and functional.

These findings from animal studies have been supported by a number of human studies.

Physical exercise

A large, six-year study of adults aged 65 and older found that physical fitness and exercise were both associated with a significantly lower risk of dementia. Encouragingly, for those who are more frail, even modest amounts of exercise (such as walking 15 minutes a day) appear beneficial, and the more frail the person was, the more they benefited from regular exercise.


Findings from two long-running studies of aging and cognition — the Nun Study and the Religious Orders Study — have revealed that formal education helps protect people from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Note that I said “from the effects”. Education doesn’t prevent or delay the disease from developing, but it does provide a “cognitive reserve”, which allows the individual to function normally in the presence of brain abnormalities (the presence of an Alzheimer’s pathology is thus only evident when the brain is autopsied post-mortem).

As you would expect, the more years of education, the greater the cognitive reserve — the less effect the same number of plaques have on cognitive performance. It’s worth noting that the populations in these studies are all relatively well-educated — even the least educated had some college attendance — suggesting that the effect of education would be even more marked in the general population.

However, there is some evidence that, once the disease progresses to the point that it has noticeable effects, those effects progress faster. This is thought to be simply because the damage is so much greater by the time it becomes observable in behavior.

A general population study still in train has provided preliminary findings indicating that prevalence of mild cognitive impairment also is less common among those with more education.

Higher education also seems to help protect older adults from cognitive decline in general. One reason is clearly the cognitive reserve aspect, but an imaging study has also revealed another reason. In young adults performing memory tasks, more education was associated with less use of the frontal lobes and more use of the temporal lobes. For older adults doing the same tasks, more education was associated with less use of the temporal lobes and more use of the frontal lobes. Previous research has indicated frontal activity is greater in old adults, compared to young; this study therefore implies that this effect is related to the educational level in the older participants. The higher the education, the more likely the older adult is to recruit frontal regions, resulting in a better memory performance.

An earlier brain-scan study also provided support for the theory that the brain may change tactics as it ages, and that older people whose brain is more flexible can compensate for some aspects of memory decline.

Results from a large study of older adults from a biracial community in Chicago suggest that the benefits of education are not necessarily education per se. Although both education and occupation were associated with Alzheimer's risk in this study, their effects were substantially reduced when cognitive activity was taken into account.

In keeping with these findings, several smaller studies have also provided evidence that other aspects of mental activity are also associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Mental activity

People with Alzheimer's have been found to be more likely to have had less mentally stimulating careers, and those who are more active in high school and have higher IQ scores are apparently less likely to have mild memory and thinking problems and dementia as older adults.

A study of 469 people aged 75 and older found that those who participated at least twice weekly in reading, playing games (chess, checkers, backgammon or cards), playing musical instruments, and dancing were significantly less likely to develop dementia. Although the evidence on crossword puzzles was not quite statistically significant, those who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a much lower risk of dementia than those who did one puzzle a week.

Another study of 700 seniors found that more frequent participation in cognitively stimulating activities, such as reading books, newspapers or magazines, engaging in crosswords or card games, was significantly associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

And more recently, a comprehensive review of the research into 'cognitive reserve', involving 29,000 individuals across 22 studies, concluded that complex mental activity across people’s lives almost halves the risk of dementia. Encouragingly, all the studies also agreed that it was never too late to build cognitive reserve.

Looking at the question of cognitive decline in general, a large-scale British study of people aged 35—55 found that those who scored highest on tests of cognitive ability made regular cultural visits to theatres, art galleries and stately homes. Other activities were also associated with higher cognitive ability (in order of importance):

  • reading, and listening to music
  • involvement in clubs and voluntary organisations
  • participation in courses and evening classes

Interestingly, the association was stronger among men.

Another study, of people aged 30—88, has found that those who were fluent in two languages rather than just one, were sharper mentally. This was true at all age groups, but bilinguals were also much less likely to suffer from the mental decline associated with old age. The participants were all middle class, and educated to degree level.

Social networks

There has been some evidence suggesting that simply talking helps keep your mind sharp at all ages, and that older people with more extensive social networks are less likely to suffer cognitive impairment.

More recently, a study has provided evidence that social networks also offer a 'cognitive reserve' that protects people from the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. To determine social network, participants were asked about the number of children they have and see monthly; about the number of relatives, excluding spouse and children, and friends to whom they feel close and with whom they felt at ease and could talk to about private matters and could call upon for help, and how many of these people they see monthly. Their social network was the number of these individuals seen at least once per month.

Post-mortem analysis revealed that, as the size of the social network increased, the same amount of Alzheimer’s pathology in the brain (i.e., extent of plaques and tangles) had less effect on cognitive test scores. In other words, for persons without much pathology, social network size had little effect on cognition. However, as the amount of pathology increased, the apparent protective effect on cognition also increased.

What you can do

The thought that your education, occupation, degree of physical fitness, and social involvedness, over the years, affects your risk of losing cognitive function, may relieve your anxieties or depress you. But if it depresses you, take heart from a recently-reported pilot study involving people aged 35–69. These people had some mild memory complaints but performed normally on tests. Nevertheless, in a mere two weeks, a program combining a brain healthy diet plan (5 small meals a day; diet rich in omega-3 fats, antioxidants and low-glycemic carbohydrates like whole grains), relaxation exercises, cardiovascular conditioning (daily walks), and mental exercise (such as crosswords and brain teasers) resulted in these participants' brain metabolism decreasing 5% in working memory regions, suggesting an increased efficiency. Compared to the control group, participants also performed better in verbal fluency, and felt as if they were performing better.



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The Mozart Effect

The more hyped and less plausible passive Mozart Effect

The so-called "Mozart effect" refers to two quite different phenomena. The one that has received the most media play concerns the almost magical (and mythical) effect of Mozart's music on intelligence. It is the result of a misrepresentation of the research results. Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky's 1993 study found that 10 minutes of exposure to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K. 448 temporarily enhanced performance on three spatial reasoning tasks.

The source of the misunderstanding lay in the fact that spatial reasoning is a component of IQ tests, and the researchers reported an increase of some 8 or 9 points in students' IQ scores after listening to the music. The effect lasted some ten to fifteen minutes.

Even in this limited sense, the effect has not been consistently replicated - indeed, it would be fair to say it has more usually failed to be replicated. Moreover, a meta-analysis of studies that have investigated this effect has found that any cognitive improvement "is small and does not reflect any change in IQ or reasoning ability in general, but instead derives entirely from performance on one specific type of cognitive task and has a simple neuropsychological explanation"1.

There does seem to be a case that particular types of music can have an effect on brainwaves - there has been some interesting work done on its possible therapeutic role in reducing epileptic seizures - but the main effect of music seems to be through its effect on arousal.

Most of the research done into the Mozart Effect has continued the example of the original researchers by comparing the effect of listening to Mozart's music with listening to silence or to a relaxation tape. Obviously enough, these various situations would be expected to differentially affect mood and level of arousal (which are known to have a, small and unreliable, effect on cognition). There is evidence that when this effect is controlled for, the Mozart effect (which we may note is also small and unreliable) disappears.

The more plausible active Mozart effect

There is however another Mozart effect that promises to be more useful. This is the possibility that formal training in music yields nonmusical benefits. Once again, the media are keen to hypothesize that this effect is on IQ (what is the media's obsession with IQ?). There does however seem to be growing evidence that musical training benefits other faculties - specifically, verbal memory.

More articles on the Mozart Effect,12102,871350,00.html

BBC radio programme:

about the effect of music training from one of the original "Mozart effect" researchers:


  • Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L, & Ky, K.N. 1993. Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.
  • Schellenberg, E.G. 2001. Music and nonmusical abilities. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 930, 355-71.

Studies that have failed to confirm this finding

  • Chabris, C.F. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.
  • McCutcheon,L.E. 2000. Another failure to generalize the Mozart effect. Psychological Reports, 87, 325-30.
  • Newman,J., Rosenbach,J.H., Burns,K.L., Latimer,B.C., Matocha,H.R. & Vogt,E.R. 1995. An experimental test of "the mozart effect": does listening to his music improve spatial ability? Perceptual & Motor Skills, 81, 1379-87.
  • Steele, K.M., Bella, S.D., Peretz, I., Dunlop, T., Dawe, L.A., Humphrey, G.K., Shannon, R.A., Kirby Jr., J.L. & Olmstead, C.G. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.
  • Steele, K.M., Brown,J.D., Stoecker,J.A. 1999. Failure to confirm the Rauscher and Shaw description of recovery of the Mozart effect. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 88, 843-8.

Failure to extend finding:

  • Bridgett,D.J. & Cuevas,J. 2000. Effects of listening to Mozart and Bach on the performance of a mathematical test. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 90, 1171-5.
  • Steele,K.M., Ball,T.N. & Runk,R. 1997. Listening to Mozart does not enhance backwards digit span performance. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 84, 1179-84.

Success in replicating effect:

  • Rideout,B.E., Dougherty,S. & Wernert,L. 1998. Effect of music on spatial performance: a test of generality. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 86, 512-4.
  • Rideout,B.E. & Taylor,J. 1997. Enhanced spatial performance following 10 minutes exposure to music: a replication. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 85, 112-4.

Effect accounted by arousal:

  • Steele,K.M. 2000. Arousal and mood factors in the "Mozart effect". Perceptual & Motor Skills, 91, 188-90.
  • Thompson,W.F., Schellenberg,E.G. & Husain,G. 2001. Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological Science, 12, 248-51.

1. Chabris, C.F. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.

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Face-name association

Creating a face-name association

  • Select a distinctive feature of the face (nose).
  • Select a word or phrase that sounds like the name (con rat for Conrad).
  • Create an interactive image linking the distinctive feature with the keyword(s) (a man in a prisoner’s uniform — con — rides a rat that slides down the nose).

To remember the name on seeing the face again, you must:

  • Identify the distinctive feature that you used when encoding (nose).
  • Use that feature to help you retrieve the interactive image (a con riding a rat sliding down a nose).
  • Derive the keyword(s) from the image (con rat).
  • Use the keyword to help you retrieve the name (Conrad).

Drawbacks to the face-name association method

To use the face-name association method in a social situation requires a great deal of practice.

The other drawback to this method is that it requires you to select a distinctive feature. This is not always easy, particularly when you’re distracted and time is short (which is usually the case when you’re being introduced to someone). But finding a distinctive feature is absolutely crucial to the strategy’s effectiveness.

Face-name association only works well to the extent that the selected distinctive feature is an effective cue.


McCarty, D.L. 1980. Investigation of a visual imagery mnemonic device for acquiring face-name associations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 145-155.

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Bilingual-Dichotic Method

This is a somewhat specialized technique. Dichotic listening refers to a technique used in the psychology laboratory, whereby a person wearing headphones hears different messages in the left and right ear. The technique has been used with some success in teaching foreign language words - the foreign word is heard in the right ear while simultaneously the native translation is heard in the left ear (most people process speech better in the right ear). The student is instructed to attend to the foreign language word. The student also has a list of the words to read while listening.

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