It’s a vexata quaestio if it is better to know techniques or to develop an ability. In many areas of scientific research, this is a highly debated topic. To a first approximation, for our concerns, we can say that it’s obvious that knowing the mnemo-techniques without exercising them is useless. Furthermore, it’s also waste of energy and time to study without a strategy or a method. Actually, learning a technique and developing an ability go hand in hand. However, asserting this is not enough since there are a lot of ways to use techniques in order to enhance skills. In this paper, we will discuss this issue.

Memory, association and understanding

In some previous articles [1] we have seen that memory works through association (association between words and images, images and concepts, symbols and meanings and so on). Undoubtedly the best way of memorizing is to understand. Not everything can be reduced to a simple association or a mere sequence of associations: memory is a lot of other things and has many other aspects and/or components, but the element of connection must always be well considered. Association partly determines also the meaning of what we are learning. An abstract concept, for example, changes meaning (at least in part) if we associate it with one image instead of another; explaining a thesis with some words or some figures of speech may give rise to different interpretations, sometimes even opposites, etc. We have to pay attention to what kind of association we make when we want to memorize some things rather than others. The typology of associations determines the shape of memories, the meaning of what we are learning.

Free association as a good practice for memory

In order to choose the best solution, we must be free to arrange concepts and images. We have to do so precisely because we have to find the best way to connect different and differentiated objects of knowledge. In most cases it is the “nature” of the concepts and that of the image which guide us to find the right solution to connect them. We have to see case by case based on the specific condition of the thing we want to memorize. This doesn’t mean that we have to proceed randomly; on the contrary, it’s the specific structure, nature, configuration of the thing that we have to memorize in each specific case to determine the nature of the link. We must ask ourselves what image we have to attach to the concept that we are learning. This is an excellent exercise: try to find always two or three images to link to the new, difficult concept that we are learning. In fact, this precept must be applied only to the concepts that we find difficult to understand and memorize. It is unnecessary and even harmful to proceed in this way in every situation and context. It would represent an unduly burdensome and slowing down of the study. This method should be used only when needed: that is, when we have difficulty in understanding and memorizing something. However, in this case it is a great gimmick. Connecting a suitable image to one particular item or concept, is the first litmus test to verify what and when we understand.

Free association as a device to develop skills

In this statement it seems that there is a paradox since “device” could recall, in a sense, the meaning of “technique”. But this is a false paradox based on the abstract and the artificial juxtaposition between technique and skill. Technique without the ability to put it into practice, is only vague knowledge. It’s only with practice that we can understand techniques in-depth. To develop the ability to use free associations guarantees, as time goes on, a better knowledge of ourselves and gradually this will enable us to become aware of what we have to use in a given situation. Being free to make free associations doesn’t mean making random connections, but being free to always decide the most appropriate strategy for us at that particular moment. Learning to adapt the technique to the object to be stored and learning to choose the right strategy for the given material to understand is the second litmus test to verify what and when we are understanding while we are memorizing.

Thinking through negative sentences is a good way to memorize and understand

When you think about a positive statement that you or someone else says, you only have to think about the meaning of it. For example, if someone tells you that “Snow is white”, you just have to think about white snow. You only need to imagine the content of the affirmative statement, you don’t need to think of anything else. But, if I say to you that “Snow is NOT white” – to understand the meaning – you have to think first of all of the white snow and after, and only after, you have to represent another colour given to the snow. Sometimes we do this unconsciously because of the rapidity of thought. This is one of the fundamental criteria of the mental association that we showed in a previous article. Here we can further consider that this is a good way to understand as well as to memorize. Asserting the contrary of a concept or a thesis is a good method to clarify them. Indeed, in order to define not simply a different thing, but the exact opposite of something, the latter has to be very clear to our intellect. To do so is moreover a good trick – and the third litmus test – to become aware if we understand when we are studying.

Proceeding from the unknown to the known is better by degrees

Making “free associations” does not mean that we can put together sentences or images without a criterion or a thought that submits the associations themselves. A completely new content of knowledge expressed by a statement or a set of sentences may not be usefully memorized through a simple association with something already well known. In this case, the best thing to do, is to begin with the image or the concept already known and work backwards by degrees until the new content of knowledge. Usually only one step is enough to connect the “new” with the “old”. We have to start from a concept or a statement that is empirically verifiable and connect it with a thing that we want to memorize through an element that mediates between the two. This third component has to have some shared aspects with the “old” and some others with the “new”. If, for example, we have to memorize the concept of “ontology” that can be explained as «the inquiry into being in so much as it is being ("being qua being")», that it means nothing to someone that doesn’t know Aristotelian metaphysics. To connect the principal meaning (according to which it is the «philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality as well as the basic categories of being and their relations») [2] to an image that we already know, we can find something able to guarantee the abstract term “ontology” with a concrete image easy to remember. I can imagine, for instance, a still that is distilling grappa from the marc (pomace).

The marc represents the material objects since the grappa stands for the abstract category of the being of all the existent entities (namely all the pressed grapes present in the still). Not all the marc passes in to the grappa, only its “essence” and/or “being”, only what can be reduced to its alcoholic fragrances. The third element is an analogical one, but it has some elements in common with a concrete image (the still with the marc) and others (distillation as abstraction; pure alcohol opposed to composite marc) with the philosophical definition of ontology. To be able to find a good third idea/image to connect one well-known with another unknown is the fourth litmus test to verify if we understand while we are memorizing.

To memorize a thing well we can imagine it always in a specific way

To memorize a thing well we can imagine it always in a specific way, and that manner ought to always be the same. If you connect a concept to an image, for instance, if you associate the concept of ontology to the image of a still, it’s better for memorizing to represent the still in flames or trapped in a block of ice: «When you [...] wish to add further associations, all you have to do is [...] imagine your association word exactly as you usually imagine it, but as if it were contained in a huge block of ice. This simple visualisation technique will drastically change the association pictures you have formed and will double the effectiveness of your system» [3]. This technique has a dual function: on one hand it allows us to have a further cue and a further internal connection between the elements of the memory. On the other hand, this image (the block of ice, the flames or whatever you like) is a warning bell that works on a subconscious level. If we are good at categorizing concepts, we can use a number of these additional images. To put some more light on this principle: we can use the additional image of the block of ice to remember a concept; the image of the flame to remember dates, or numbers, or formulas; the image of a cage to remember facts and so on. It has to be clear: images are only further clues, they are images of containers that have to contain the images of the things that we have to remember. They should never replace or overlap the images that we want to associate with the things (ideas, concepts, poetry, theorems, etc.) to memorize.

[1] Simple cues in complex schemes – Cognitive strategies for information management; Association and memory – General considerations on the concept of connection in memory techniques; Different kinds of association – The main criteria of mental connections between images and concepts.
[3] T. Buzan, Use your memory, Guild Publishing, London, 1986, p.73.