Study Tips & Tools
Memory aids for anatomy & physiology
What is a mnemonic?
Mnemonic devices–or simply mnemonics–are memory aids. The word mnemonic means “relating to memory.” The use of mnemonics in anatomy and physiology is one of the “survival skills” I discuss in Survival Guide For Anatomy And Physiology: Tips, Techniques And Shortcuts.
mnemonic is pronounced nee-MAHN-ik
Mnemonics have been used for thousands of years and are still considered to be the best way to learn a long list of items (such as structures or functions) quickly. They take a variety of forms, but the two most popular are:
- Series of linked images
Vivid images, each representing an entry in the list to be memorized, are visualized as linked one to the next–in order.
- Sentence or phrase
Each word in the phrase begins with same letter (or same syllable) as each word in the list to be memorized.
The best mnemonics combine both methods. A sentence that conjures up a vivid image of linked elements makes memorizing a list even easier. The best mnemonics also have these characteristics:
- Visual—they should conjure up a vivid mental image.
- Silly—the more outlandish or goofy or risqué they are, the better
- Personal—they work better if they relate to something or somebody you know
- Simple—if they are too complicated, they don’t work well
- Rhyme—if they rhyme, or at least have a strong rhythm, they’re easier to remember
A mnemonic for remembering these elements:
Visualize Silly Persons Simply Rhyming.
This one is a simple but vivid image. But it’s also more than just a hint—it uses almost the same words as in the list to be learned. If I could get it to rhyme, that would be even better.
Because mnemonics are easy to remember, it’s easy to remember the elements of the list to be memorized. If the list was easy to memorize, you wouldn’t need to use a mnemonic device, eh?
Tips for using mnemonics
A big mistake a lot of people make is to not practice their mnemonic enough that they can really remember it—or what the mnemonic represents.
Another big mistake is to think you’re going to rely on the mnemonic forever. It’s best to practice enough that you eventually remember the original list itself—without using the mnemonic. The mneomic is like a crutch used during physical rehab—you want to progress to a point where you don’t need to lean on it anymore.
If you make them up yourself, mnemonics work better. That’s because they better relate to how YOU think, what’s funny to you, and what’s familiar to you.
If you need help making your mnemonic rhyme, use one of the rhyming tools listed below.
Sometimes, just an acronym—an abbreviation make up of the first letter of each word in the list–will work as good or better than a whole mnemonic sentence.
If the list does not have to be in a certain order, it may be easier to make a mnemonic if you rearrange the order of the items in the list.
Here are a few examples of mnemonics used in A&P.
From Anatomy & Physiology
Skull foramina (cranial floor)
Notice in the above example, many of the mnemonic’s words or first syllables resemble the actual names of the structures in the list. And it conjures a vivid, silly image. I made this one up. It’s personal because I used to work with owls and I like owls.
The four main phases of mitotis, in order of occurrence are:
One could easily remember the acronym PMAT—especially if you picture a puppy peeing on a mat.
Michael Britt, creator of The Psych Files, has a great video that walks you through the process of building visual iimages that act as mnemonics to help you remember parts of the human brain.
Besides helping you learn the brain, it’s also a wonderful lesson in how you can create your mnemonics by using silly (but memorable) visual images. Check it out:
My favorite quote from the video, while he’s using a glop of Jello: “That’s one of the keys to mnemonics . . . make it disgusting.”
This site also has apps and other resources for learning neuroscience concepts.
Find more examples
Because you may have trouble making up your own—or because you may just want to some help getting started–here are some places you can go for more mnemonics. WARNING: some may include risqué versions!
Make your own
The above examples didn’t help? Try these resources to get your creative juices flowing:
Mnemonic Generator (random phrases)