Sunday, September 14, 2014

Memory Gimmicks 4. Story Chains

As we took our hour and a half drive to Houston, my granddaughter was practicing a school assignment of memorizing the names of the first 10 presidents. By the time we got there, she still had not done it. I told her a simple way to memorize such sequential lists, and showed her that she could have mastered the task in about 10 minutes. The solution is one of the oldest mnemonic devices: create image-based story chains. The idea is to imagine an image for each item to be memorized and then link them in a story sequence.

As I mentioned for Tip 1, several thousand years ago, ancient Greek orators were noted for their ability to give hours-long speeches from memory. After all there were no teleprompters then, nor even any practical way to write down a long speech. So how did they pull off such astonishing feats? They invented a visual imaging technique where thoughts were mentally captured as images in the mind’s eye because images are much easier to remember than words. They then placed these mental images sequentially in imagined story chains. Thus, they could give their speeches as if they were reading a list of bullet points, but it was all done in their as visual imagination.

This approach works because the human brain is wired to construct and remember stories. If you have any doubt, just think of the popularity of the movies, TV dramas, and novels (some 100,000 in English each year).


Here is a practical example that should interest school teachers and students. Suppose you wanted to memorize the organelles of a cell.



 The picture above shows an icon image representation for each major cell component. The table below shows how each icon can represent the name and function of each organelle as well as showing how the images can be linked in a story chain. You might, for example, mentally represent the nucleus as a nuclear reactor. Then, for the Golgi apparatus, you might picture a sound-alike, "gold." And so on. The images provide cues that capture some of the function of the organelle as well as just helping to  remember its name.


Cell Parts and Function
Place in Story Chain
Nucleus … nuclear … nuclear reactor: makes really valuable stuff (like gene expression)
The cell's most important part is the nucleus.
Golgi apparatus … Golgi … gold: stuff that is really valuable, as in finished product (finished proteins)
Energy produced by the reactor is valuable, like gold
Centrioles … center: splits the line (centrioles split cells)
It takes a lot of gold to pay for a professional football player.
Ribosomes … ribs: they put meat on your ribs, as well as make other proteins too
Pro players eat a lot, like bar-b-que ribs.
Lysosomes ... lie: ribs lie down on chemicals and crush them
The player lies to the cook that the ribs taste bad
Mitochrondria … mites: they move around energetically
As punishment for lying, the mite bits him in the "you know where."
Cell membrane … cellophane: wraps it all together
You wrap up this whole silly story with cellophane.

Note that the sequence could be changed. The icons are put in whatever order needed to facilitate a story. If it is necessary to keep track of serial order, as in a list of U.S. Presidents for example, this may affect your choice of icons and it may take a little more imagination to create a story chain.

One thing that I have noticed about story chains is that a lot is remembered just from the process of selecting images and constructing the story. After all, thinking about a subject is a most powerful way to remember it. Another thing is that, as with all imaging representations, the imagination is developed and it becomes easier to come up with creative solutions that you can apply to other memory tasks. Children can probably do this better than adults.

Finally, story chains are applicable to many memory challenges. You can use them for such tasks as speeches, lists, a sequence of instructions or directions, or names of people in a group. And making up such stories can be fun.

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