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The Art and Utility of Mnemonics

In fact, it seems that the more dramatically they can provoke listeners, the more easily they stick on the mind.

The word "mnemonics" for memory-devices comes from an old Greek word that sort of means "mindful," and today as I've been looking up medical mnemonics for inspiration in helping my wife remember her Biology, I was struck initially by one aspect of them: they are designed to be provocative or even potentially offensive. In fact, it seems that the more dramatically they can provoke listeners, the more easily they stick on the mind. Here's an example:

Cyanide Tastes Like Sweet Candy

This sentence lists off the different sections of the spinal column, Cervical, Thoracic, Lumbar, Sacrum, and Coccyx (which you may remember from Safe Men, when LaFleur the hit man suggests he'll only break the relatively useless Coccyx to get back at Sam, the safe-cracker).

Another example that comes from my high school physiology class runs like this: "Never Lower Tilly's Pants, GrandMa Might Come Home." It was nice of my teacher to implant this in my mind so that even to this day I can remember my tarsals, the bones of my ankle: Navicular, Lunate, Triquetral, Pisiform, Greater Multangular, Lesser Multangular, Capitate, Hamate.

There's an equal (but comparatively tame) one for the wrist (the carpals) which share some names with the tarsals: "Scared lovers try positions that they can't handle" for Scaphoid, Lunate, Triquetral, Pisiform, Trapezium, Trapezoid, Capitate, Hamate.

You can see how most English speakers would have trouble remembering this string of nouns. Med school students, however, are required to memorize thesee long runs of information and the mnemonics are one of their own tools for doing so. Here's another of the most provocative mnemonics (browseable at medicalmnemonics.com):

Oh Oh To Touch And Feel A Goodly Virgin's Ample Hymen

This one ticks off the cranial nerves. Here they are: Olfactory nerve, Optic nerve, Occulomotor nerve, Trochlear nerve, Trigeminal nerve, Abducent nerve, Facial nerve, Auditory nerve, Glossopharyngeal nerve, Vagus nerve, Spinal accessory nerve, and Hypoglossal nerve. Notice something else? How's about this one, designed to make it easier to remember whether each of these twelve cranial nerves is sensory, motor, or both

Some Say Marry Money But My Brother Says Big Boobs Matter More.

There's a pattern here: not only are these authored to shock, but they've been passed down through medical schools since these were obviously dominated by men. What would devices created by women have sounded like?

Next time you want to remember something, strip all the first letters off the words and conjure up something provocative and you'll be amazed how it sinks into your brain and plagues you years later until you wonder stuff like "What's the point in continuing to remember the bones of the ankle?"