On Mnemonic Examples, Controversy and Visual Learning

Illustration of a mnemonic example for memorizing hiraganaI’ve been greedy with my mnemonic examples. But there’s a good reason why and it will help you learn to use memory techniques much better.

Why have I been so greedy?

Why, as an internationally renown memory expert, have I given text-only examples of the associative-imagery I create in my mind?

Because all over the net I see people providing images in ways that encourage people to not use the powers of their own imagination.

Sure, some of them are brilliant, such as this Ultimate Guide to the Hiragana.

But even the best mnemonic examples with the most amazing illustrations are ultimately like giving a person using a crutch when that person is ready to walk on his own.

Why I’m Changing My Position On Mnemonic Examples

Lately I’ve been softening on this point. If nothing else, I’ve been at least thinking about how I can give at least a few visual examples to serve as a prompt.

Like this one from my full tutorial on how to memorize scripture:

A mnemonic example for memorizing verse numbers

A mnemonic example of using images to memorize a verse name and number

The caveat is, however, that people serious about learning advanced memory skills need to learn the principles of strong associative-imagery and how to use Memory Palaces properly.

This can only be accomplished by sitting down and doing the work. I may even be of two minds here because I still stand behind what I wrote in this post called Why Mnemonic Examples Rarely Work.

Thus …

I remain a bit torn…

Here’s why:

The following letter, demonstrates something that has always been perfectly clear to me:

There is no way to place on paper exactly what is going on in my head (or your head) when it comes to the mnemonic images we create.

Have a read:

I did a quick search on Ezra Pound. On Google images to be more specific.

I see a huge problem, when the illustrations, be they as good as possible, lay far from the actual memorable image that you created.

You probably took more notice of some features of him that cannot be captured by the illustrations. The only thing that must be done is to explain even further this problem and get everything clarified. I once picked up a photo of Agatha Christie, not because I’m a huge fan, but I needed the sound “ag” and the name popped in my head. 
I didn’t know the face of Ms. Christie, so I simply got a photo of her face, focused on the hair style that she was using (photos attached) and on the “black & whiteness” of her.Now I can easily use her to that sound, even though I don’t remember her face, but I remember a woman with that hair style, with a distinctive black and whiteness in the middle of a normal scenario. 
I took the feature of a photo and used as a feature of the person. I merely dress her in a long black gown, as black as black can be, and just don’t bother about the face at all. So, this is MY Agatha Christie, and that’s what I think no illustration can achieve.
I think you probably knew about it before, but here is my experience. Again, illustrations can help, so you can create just the sufficient amount to create the training wheels. Maybe doing it to the entire 48 Japanese symbols would be too much. Perhaps ten would give the taste to begin and the push to create the rest. I hope I could help.

Yes, you definitely helped!

And I’m grateful for these thoughts.

Another person made the good point that it could be useful to visualize – or have cartooned – the maps of the Memory Palaces I use themselves:

When I  am encouraging my own children or others that I have taught, I believe a sampling sparks imagination.  If you are trying to help people learn a 48 symbol alphabet, I believe four or  five examples would be sufficient.  I agree that you do not want to do the work for them. 

One thought I had after I sent the email:  Sometimes a picture is worth a 1,000 words.

Sometimes it is hard to explain using just words.  Personally, when I saw the examples your explanations came to life.

You might consider giving different types of examples, kind a standard set of examples you have drawn up.  I’ve noted that you always begin with basics of location, imagery and motion.  Give a simple map  and  two or three images in that section.  Then in the main subject area you could add a couple more specific images, i.e., the alphabet symbols.

With my own children and others I have taught, I have found they come in all different varieties of imaginations.  Some have never had a spark to ignite their imaginations.  Those are the ones, with a little help, end up flying solo beautifully.  Some are just visual learners.  If they can see an example, then they fly.  Others just need the explanation to fly.

 Since you are dealing with so many different types of people, I believe sampling would be a good balance.  I never wanted to do the work for my children.  I wanted them to learn to use the tools so they could grow beyond the teacher.

 I still have one child in the nest.  I am still learning the tools and trying to explain as I learn.  Before long we will both be flying.

As it happens, I did create a drawing of the Memory Palace I used for the Hiragana and posted it on Facebook. Here it is:

Anthony Metivier drawing of a Memory Palace for hiragana

A Memory Palace drawing for memorizing the Japanese hiragana with mnemonics

Of course, this Memory Palace can be cartooned, but I think that ultimately, the reality is better. After all, as the first correspondent I cited above mentioned, our Memory Palaces are our Memory Palaces. To have someone else draw mine so that it looks spiffy and cool is unauthentic.

Yet, as Nietzsche once pointed out in “On Lies and Truth in an Extra-Moral Sense, many a truth is born from a lie.

Nietzsche’s not talking about lies that helped anyone, but in the world of mnemonics, a fabrication or two here and there might not be a terrible thing if it helps people get busy in their imaginations with Memory Palaces and associative-imagery.

Have a Look at the Following Mnemonic Example

This cartoon shows my personal associative-image for the first letter of the Hiragana あ:

A mnemonic example of Ezra Pound with a fish to memorize the sound and shape of a hiragana character

A mnemonic example of Ezra Pound with a fish to memorize the sound and shape of a hiragana character

As the following letter points out, some people might find such an image controversial. I’m citing the letter as a whole because there’s lots of good stuff in it. The part about this image is at the end:

Hi Anthony,

I have recently purchased your Masterclass and am enjoying learning the Magnetic Memory Method. Thank you for all that you are doing to enrich the learning experience of all your many students!

I am responding to your appeal for feedback that you sent out yesterday (Aug 2 2014) and again today. I have 2 specific items of input.

But first, I would like to preface my thoughts by telling you how much I appreciate your openness to feedback. It is refreshing to find someone who is genuinely interested in hearing what others are thinking, and beyond just hearing words, someone who is willing to make the effort to understand what people are trying to say.

I also think it is pretty cool that you are open to looking at things from new perspectives. You write about personally getting zero benefit from seeing images of associative-images by others, and you limit the visual elements in your video courses to help people come up with their own imagery.

But you’re creative enough to be willing to evaluate this established position, and you’re willing to consider even reversing course if it will help other people gain traction in moving toward reaching their goals of successfully using the Magnetic Memory Method. Bravo, Anthony!

You remind me of an inspiring music teacher I once had who would tell his students, “I’ll do anything it takes to get you to learn this. I’ll stand on my ear if that will help!” — Well, usually standing upside down on his ear wouldn’t help us learn, but his willingness to do whatever it took did help, a lot!

Now, here’s my 2 items:

1) First item: In my learning of the Magnetic Memory Method would I find it helpful to see examples of your associative imagery through illustrative visual pictures?

The way my brain processes things I find that it is always easier and faster for me to learn new material if the unfamiliar concepts can be clearly illustrated.

For example, if someone tries to teach me the meaning of the word “metaphor” they might tell me a metaphor is a figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity.

If they stop there, the concept will remain a bit foggy for me. But if they give me some illustrations of metaphors like, “He’s a raging tiger when he’s angry,” and, “The computer she bought back in 1994 is an old dinosaur,” then I will begin to catch the idea.

These illustrations will begin to make the meaning clear, and they will suggest all kinds of creative possibilities for my own use of metaphor. But without the illustrations I am left struggling to understand and unable to effectively use the concept of metaphor.

So, with the Magnetic Memory Method, I would definitely find a number of different illustrations to be helpful. And, by the way, they could be verbal illustrations that are written out or pictorial illustrations that are drawn out. Either way will “teach me how to fish” better than concepts that are not illustratively unpacked.

2) My 2nd item: A word about the illustrations you choose to give us.

Out of respect for public sensitivities there are some memorable images that your memory training illustrations should steer clear of.

Obvious examples would be avoiding publishing a drawing that features child abuse, a vigilante lynching, holocaust victimization – these kind of things would be seen as offensive to many people and they would needlessly drive a wedge between them and the helpful memory methods you are trying to teach.

Now, may I humbly and respectfully apply this non-offensive approach to your publicly presented illustrations? The email you sent to us gives the illustration of “Ezra Pound standing in Jesus Christ pose…” The image this calls to my mind is Jesus with His arms outstretched in the position of being crucified on the cross.

There are many followers of Jesus Christ who would find this troubling to their sensitivities. If they view Jesus with great honor like a child might hold his mother or his father in the greatest of respect, and if someone were to trivialize their parent they would view that as being disrespectful and find it offensive to their sensitivities.

Since there must be dozens of other creative illustrations that could be used in your public teaching – you could reach this large segment of your audience (those who follow Jesus) better and more magnetically by choosing illustrations that draw them in rather then repel.

You are obviously drawing me into your Magnetic Memory Method because I responded to your appeal for feedback. And from your writings you seem to be a person who is open minded enough to genuinely listen to my feedback in a way that will seek to understand what I am trying to say. And that makes it worth my investment of time and mental energy to write you today.

Long live the Magnetic Memory Method!

Let me begin my response with an important statement:

I’m very, very sensitive to appropriateness when it comes to putting things out there in the public.

However, one of the key tenets of the Magnetic Memory Method and that I would advise people to exercise maximum forgiveness for is our imagination. If we judge what our imaginative faculties bring us, we risk alienating these powers.

Sounds dramatic, I know, but my view is that the imagination is deeply sensitive and we need to be receptive to what it brings because the unconscious tends to know better than the conscious mind what will make the target information memorable if we step out of the way and let it do its Magnetic thing.

What we need is to create a “rubberneck” effect, images that cause us to literally turn our heads, notice what we’ve seen and find it impossible not to interpret the associative-imagery we find on that station of the Memory Palace.

This is critical.

I won’t repeat here what George Carlin said about rape having the potential for good clean laughter, but I think he’s right. Even the most drastic images can be funny and when it comes to mnemonics, my personal view is that life is too short of political correctness. Especially when it comes to overcoming forgetfulness.

If the imagery helps you remember the target information that is near and dear to you and will help you improve your life, use it.

If you’re still not convinced, please read the essay by Nietzsche cited above carefully. In this case, I don’t mind being the person who stands up and tells the truth about what works in the world of mnemonics.

It’s good news and the kind of Christian – or person of any faith – who would demonize mnemonics will probably be the same person who believes in the mnemonics-crushing nonsense the author discussed in the Magnetic Memory Method podcast called Of Witchcraft, Nonstrology and Mnemonics believes.

In any case, I take the criticism and the warning with gratefulness but feel confident that people who are serious about using mnemonics will “get” why letting the imagination have its freedom is not only healthy, but that caging our natural capacity to fantasize has damaged the human race for centuries.

With one last reference to Nietzsche, mnemonics presents the perfect reason to step Beyond Good and Evil and get down to business with memory skills.

Moving on, this letter reveals something interesting and raising an important question:

Do Mnemonics Examples Actually Make Memorizing Easier?

Hi Anthony,

I’m really tempted to say that 48 images will be great because that will be easier. Everything is already in your plate for you to eat and digest. Less effort!

However, you are right, own images are more effective. So after careful evaluation and thinking on the long term effect, I say that 3 examples will suffice. I’m afraid that  spoon feeding -giving all examples- might hinder their motivation to use their own imagination. They will be highly dependent on the examples and have difficulty to apply the magnetic memorization method to other things.

I guess the main goal is to teach the effective tool to memorize. I think this anecdote applies, ” Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

I hope you find my notes useful. Good luck Anthony.

Again, these notes are very useful and I’m honored to have them.

However, for me, nothing could be harder than processing the mnemonics of others. We might try to convince ourselves that it’s easier, but at the end of the day, it’s harder.


Because the opportunity to grow is lost, or at least diminished. You want to become a living mnemonics dictionary, after all.

The sooner you have the fundamental skills, the sooner you can fly on your own.

And the Magnetic Memory skies are mighty fine.

To conclude …

Am I Making Too Big Of A Deal With This? Are the Hiragana Actually Easy?

Here’s a last note I’d like to highlight from the recent correspondence I’ve received:

I took a look at your training for the Hiragana. It looks promising. Allow me to clarify where I am on the Japanese language spectrum. The Hiragana are quite easy to learn and memorize in only three hours. I did so using James Heisig’s method of six 30-minute lessons. Very effective. He has a companion volume for the Katakana, which I’ve also gone through, but have found remembering those character more difficult. They don’t stick for me, as the memory image is not strong enough to recall the pronunciation of the Katakana character.

I certainly appreciate that for some people memorizing the Hiragana is easy. As John Fotheringham suggests, author of Master Japanese and for whom I wrote “Why It’s Impossible to Learn New Words and Phrases Out of Context,” the Hiragana can be mastered in a weekend.

But, with all due respect, John’s talking about rote learning, something I often jokingly refer to as the “blunt force hammer” of learning. A violent way of putting it, to be sure, but remember, there’s no place for political correctness in mnemonics.

The fact is, that if you’re a person like me, there’s no way I could learn the Hiragana over a weekend without mnemonics.

It’s ironic, I know:

With the Magnetic Memory Method, 1.5 hours.

Without it… never.

But it’s true.

When I think back to all things I “gave up” on because of unassisted memory, I shudder.

But when I think of all the things I would never try to learn without assisted memory, I never shudder.

Nor should you.

Because if you, like me, experience a mind in which information simply will not stick (most of the time), then mnemonics, approached in a strategic way, will eliminate forgetfulness and you’ll be able to perform mental miracles.

It doesn’t matter if it’s easy for others without mnemonics.

All that matters is what gets results for you. Whether it’s for learning a language or memorizing pi.

And if including a few illustrations here and there in my books and video courses from now on will help the majority (as my survey results suggest), then I’ll do it.

I’m here to super-boost your mnemonic creativity, after all. And if there’s anything more I can do to help in this area, please let me know.

2019 Update


Since originally writing this post, I’ve started delighting in sharing mnemonic examples with people.

I’ve given example associative images for memorizing names and done some live demonstrations of using memory techniques in every day life.

We’ve also started receiving a number of mnemonic examples from students.

Although my core concerns remain true, it’s become clear to me that it’s not only fun to share these examples, but it motivates, inspires and helps people take action.

But now that we’re learning more about aphantasia and that one of our best memory competitors and authors has it, things are really starting to get interesting in the world of mnemonics.

To that end, here’s a YouTube Playlist called “How to Improve Vocabulary With Mnemonic Examples.”

Dive in, enjoy and leave your comments below regarding your interest in mnemonic examples and any that you’d like to see.

4 Responses to " On Mnemonic Examples, Controversy and Visual Learning "

  1. Great article, Anthony! Mnemonics are indeed a wonderfully powerful learning tool. To clarify, I don’t espouse a rote approach to learning kana or kanji. On the contrary, I recommend an “imaginative memory” approach that makes extensive use of mnemonic principles.

    • Great to see you here, John!

      Yes, I like your approach very much. Master Japanese. It’s a great resource.

      When writing this, I was thinking of how you talk about memorizing the Kanji and Katakana in a weekend. I wanted to find a way to do it in a few hours. 🙂

  2. Karen Hong says:

    I’d like to share a word, “sesquipedalian” that just crossed my mind. I think this word is mischievously tricky and so it would be fun to memorize together any time in this video course. (But am I writing this in the right place??)

    • This is a great place for it, Karen, though posts on the YouTube videos also help show that people are engaged over there.

      I’m going to tackle this one soon. Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

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