The technique you’re about to learn is the base of almost all mnemonic techniques. If you haven’t used it before, you might underestimate how valuable it is.

When you see someone’s face, you want to remember their name. When you are learning the word amor, you want it to remind you of love. A cued response is an association between something you want to remember and something else that prompts you to remember that thing.

Learning to intentionally form these connections is the starting point for learning all mnemonic techniques. The skills involved form the foundation of practically all other techniques explained on this site. It mostly comes down to making a vivid mental picture.

Cues and responses

The goal of mnemonic devices is to create a new memory that can be recalled whenever you need it. The ability to recall the memory on demand is key.

When creating memories for cued recall, you associate pairs of items. One is the cue, which is whatever prompts you to try to remember the response.

For example, when learning a new language the cue is sometimes the word in your own language (house, bread, book) and the response is the word in the language you are learning (casa, pan, libro). Other times the relationship to be reversed—the cue is hearing the foreign word (casa) and the response is the word in your native language (house).

Other examples of pairs of cues and responses are

  • faces and names
  • a person and their birthday
  • the atomic number 8 and the element Oxygen
  • “my keys” and “the place where I put my keys”.

Mental images

We need a fast way to create new memories that last a long time and can be easily recalled later. The best way to do this is to create a mental image and focus on it intensely. It only takes a moment. It’s hard for us to forget something that we see or imagine, especially if it is unusual or vivid. If you can put something that you want to learn into a mental picture, it creates a new, lasting memory of whatever you’re learning.

To create a new memory that can be recalled whenever it is needed:

  1. Identify the cue and response.
  2. Pick a visual representation of the cue (what prompts you to remember).
  3. Pick a visual representation of the response (what you want to recall).
  4. Form a vivid mental image that involves the cue interacting with the response.

Remembering the mental picture that has the cue in it will remind you of the other part of the image.

It’s important to truly “see” and focus on the mental picture. Sometimes it’s easy to just coming up with the idea for the picture but move on before imagining it; this will not work. Pause to imagine the image.

Examples

Where did I leave my keys?

Suppose that you take your keys out of your pocket and put them down in a different spot than usual. Maybe you normally hang them next to the door, but today, for whatever reason, you put them on the piano.

First of all, never put your keys on the piano. But if you do, then to remember that you put them there you can picture the keys interacting with the piano—not just sitting on piano, but interacting with it. For example, you can think of taking a key and carving scratches into the piano. Image the sound that would make, and cringe at the thought of scratches in the piano’s wood. Mentally visualize it and focus on it for a second, and then move on.

When you think of your keys later, you will almost certainly remember the image and remember where you left them.

Some memory experts say that making silly or bizarre images works better than an ordinary mental picture. It’s also helpful to involve as many senses as possible; imagine the sounds, smells, and textures in the mental scenes that you create.

Spanish vocabulary

Here are a few basic Spanish words: sopa, carpeta, ropa, pan, pez, zorro. Each of them happens to sound a lot like an English word that can easily be pictured. This means that you can learn the Spanish word by linking the meaning of the word to whatever the Spanish word sounds like.

For each pair, I’ll give an example of how you could form a mental picture of the two things interacting.

soup → soap (sopa)
Imagine a bar of soap falling into a pot of soup, along with the splash, the smell, and the taste that it would create.
folder → carpet (carpeta)
Opening the folder causes a bunch of carpet scraps to fly out at your face. (This doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I can visualize it really well.)
clothes → rope (ropa)
I think of a bunch of clothes hanging from a rope. But they’re not attached to the rope with clips, the rope actually goes through each item of clothing. (Again—it doesn’t make sense. But I can see it clearly.) It might be tempting to just imagine clothes made out of rope, but that is more likely to cause confusion when recalling the pair later. You need to have a picture of the two separate things interacting.
bench → bank (banco, in most countries)
For this I would definitely imagine the bank that I go to, and then imagine smashing the windows by throwing a bench through them. Also imagine hearing the alarms go off.
bread → pan (pan)
All of the images that first come to mind are a bit too ordinary to be sure that I’ll remember them later. Toasting bread in a pan? Bread cooking in a pan? In the end, I settled on smashing a loaf of bread with a frying pan.
fish → Pez candy (pez)
Picture a fish eating Pez candy, operating the dispenser with it’s little fins.
fox → Zorro (zorro)
Let’s go with a fox fighting Zorro in a swordfight. Truthfully, this wasn’t the first thing that came to mind; in all of my most vivid images, the fox meets a very violent death. (I won’t share them, but those are the images that I would use.)

Imagining a fox dressed up as Zorro might work, but again, it’s not really showing two separate things interacting. When trying to recall what fox is linked to you will try to recall the other thing in the picture with the fox, and there will be nothing aside from a sword or a hat.

This is how the mental image technique works, and if you don’t already know Spanish, now you know a few words. Wait a few minutes and do something else to distract yourself, and then see if you can remember the connections that you just formed. The English words are: folder, clothes, bench, bread, fish, and fox—try to remember the Spanish words, or at least the image that represents the Spanish word.

You should also be able to start with each of the Spanish words and recall the corresponding English word.

Summary

The technique of forming mental images is the basis for most other mnemonic techniques. It’s simple and fast, and works far better than most people expect. Start putting it to use right away.

Remember, so far we’re only working with cues and responses that can be pictured. The simple technique above won’t work for learning anything. Using it to learn that umbrella is paraguas won’t work because paraguas doesn’t immediately sound like something that can be pictured. That’s what a lot of the other mnemonic techniques are for—putting arbitrary words or numbers into a form that can be visualized, so you can put them into a mental image.

Now it’s time to learn to memorize lists, which you can learn to do in just a few minutes!