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Hacking our memory: the effects of using mental imagery on remembering words
Abstract
Humans have always craved to improve their memory abilities, using various techniques such
as mnemonics. Although past research has shown that these memory strategies are better than
free recall, no recent research has been done on it. This study aimed to find if mental imagery,
a visual mnemonic, was better than repetition for remembering words. 144 participants were
randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was told to repeat pairs of words to
themselves while they heard them, while the other was instructed to associate them in a
mental picture. Participants were then read one word of each pair and asked to write down
the other associated with it. On average, out of 12 word pairs, subjects from the mental
imagery group remembered 4 more words those who repeated them silently. These findings
imply that visual mnemonics could bring hope to language students or elderly people seeking
more efficient ways to remember words.

Introduction
Memory is one of the most basic cognitive processes on which humans rely, and has been
generally described as the process of maintaining information over time (Matlin, 2005). As
it is so relied upon, there has always been a great concern for how it can be maintained and
improved. For this reason, humans have developed remembering techniques such as
mnemonics, which go back as far as Ancient Greece. In fact, the word mnemonic comes from
the Ancient Greek word meaning of memory. Today, mnemonics are generally defined as a
memorable technique or system designed to help retain and later retrieve information
(Highbee, 1979). They come popularly in the form of songs, rhymes, acronyms, models and
visualisation.
Allowing those who use them to learn and recall things more easily, they are advantageous
for people across ages and occupations who greatly rely on memorisation. For example,
recent language learning books have encouraged language learners to associate new
vocabulary with distinctive images in order to remember them more easily, as opposed to the
frustrating method of constantly repeating words to themselves (Lewis, 2014). Perhaps more
importantly, mnemonics have even been used effectively in aiding eye witnesses recalling
events better than with standard interviewing techniques (Geiselman & Fisher, 1985).
Further, mnemonic strategies have successfully been implemented in procedures designed to
help the elderly improve their memory, and remember, for instance, important names and
addresses (McDaniel & Bugg, 2011).
Extensive research into such approaches to remembering is still relatively recent, as it didnt
start until after the 1960s. Particularly in the 1970s, several studies were conducted on major
mnemonic systems, such as the Loci System, the Peg System, and the Phonetic System
(Higbee, 1979). One technique which has been largely focused on in past research is the
mental imagery method, especially for remembering words. Simply put, the learner creates a
mental image which is associated with the word theyre trying to learn (Amiryousefi &
Ketabi, 2011). The use of mental visualisation has indeed been widely supported by research
on memory and mnemonics. Bower (1970) found that associating words with images would
lead participants to better recalling them, as opposed to when they simply rehearsed them.
This was further supported by Roediger (1980), who showed four different mnemonics, one
of which being mental imagery, to be more effective than rehearsing. He noted, though, that
mental imagery was not advantageous when words needed to be recalled in a specific order.

Aditionally, Richardson (1975) observed that, although imagery does have an impact in
remembering abstract words, this impact seems to be negligeable for concrete words.
Conversely, Richardson (1998) later found that mental imagery actually led to greater recall
when used for concret words. He stated that pairs of concret nouns easily aroused mental
images in which the things described by the two words were interrelated or interacting in
some way (Richardson, 1998, p.605). Indeed, there seems to be some disagreement as to in
which conditions mental imagery is more productive than rehearsal. Moreover, recent
research does not seem to have tackled this matter.
This study aimed to find which remembering technique, rehearsal or mental imagery, is more
efficient. It was hypothesised that subjects who associate pairs of concrete words in a mental
picture will remember them better than those who silently repeat them to themselves.
Method
Design
This study used a between-groups experimental design with two different learning
techniques. One group used the rehearsal learning technique, while the other used the mental
imagery learning technique. The independent variable was which learning technique
participants were told to use, and the dependent variable was how many words they were able
to correctly remember.
Participants
In the rehearsal condition there were 83 participants, 13 males and 72 females, with a mean
age of 19.20 years (SD=3.70). In the mental imagery condition there were 61 participants, 7
males and 54 females, with a mean age of 18.53 years (SD=1.08). All participants were
Psychology undergraduate students of the University of Bath and were selected by
opportunity sampling in a Psychology Research class. They were assigned randomly to one
of two condition groups rehearsal or mental imagery - according to their birthday (even
birthdays were put in the rehearsal condition, odd birthdays were put in the mental imagery
condition).
Materials
Participants were given a protocol sheet with age, gender, condition and a list of 12 spaces for
the remembered word of each pair (Reisberg, Gleitman, H., & Gleitman, L., 2004).

Procedure
Participants in the first condition were instructed to remember pairs of words by silently
repeating the nouns to themselves. Participants in the second condition were told to form a
mental image that associated words in each pair, in order to remember them. A list of 12 pairs
of words were then read out by the experimenter with a 6 second interval between each.
After, participants were given protocol sheets to fill in with age, sex and group number
(Reisberg, Gleitman, H., & Gleitman, L., 2004) and the experimenter read out, in a different
order from the first time, one of the words of each pair, whilst participants were asked to
recall the other and write it down in a list. The words were read out in the same order for the
two conditions, both during learning and recall. Finally, each subject marked their own
protocol sheet with the number of words they had remembered correctly.
Results
Table 1
Descriptive statistics for number of remembered items for each learning condition

Condition
Mean
SD
N
Minimum
Maximum

Rehearsal
5.69
3.79
83
0
12

Learning Technique
Mental Imagery
9.57
2.88
61
1
12

As data was non-parametric, a Mann-Whitney U test was used. The differences between
groups were found to be significant, such that the group who used mental imagery recalled
more words than the group who used the rehearsal technique (U(83, 61) = 1086.5, Z=-5.8, p
< .001).
Discussion
The research hypothesis was confirmed, as mental imagery allowed people to remember
more words on average than recall did. These findings were not unique to this study, as they
are consistent with the studies of Bower (1970) and Roediger (1980), who observed that

visualising words allowed participants to recall them better. Further, it is consistent with
Richardsons (1998) claim that concret words can be efficiently remember using this
technique, as the nouns used were all concrete (for example, pencil and elephant).
However, it was not designed to control for the type of words being remembered, so no
comparison or comments can be made as to in which context mental imagery is more
advantageous. Nevertheless, the methods used fully addressed the hypothesis which was
being tested.
Taking into account the participants of this study, it can be argued that it is not possible to
generalise the findings to the whole human population. As they were first year undergraduate
Psychology students, it may be that their memory is not as skilled as that of a postgraduate
student, who has had more academic years demanding their memory abilities. Further, the
memory functions of undergraduates surely differ from that of aged individuals. Even so,
previous research on this topic has also often been conducted on Psychology undergraduates,
and in none it was seen as a limitation. Indeed, when testing memory for learning words,
students are perhaps one of the best targets, to test on and to generalise to, seeing that their
academic success somewhat depends on memorising concepts.
In fact, the results of this study could be especially significant for language learners who
largely depend on on memorising long lists of vocabulary. Benny Lewis, a polyglot who
speaks eleven languages, states that he has managed to learn the most complicated mandarin
words by trying to form the most memorable mental image of them he could think of. He
claims this to be one of the keys to his language success and through his book has lead
thousands of other people to successfully use the same technique (Lewis, 2013). Higbees
research (1979) empirically supports this practice. He states that the more bizarre and
interactive the mental associations are, the easier and faster it will be for the learner to
retrieve the words. He further notes that schools seeking to improve their students
performance should take these factors into account, instead of fostering the traditional
method of memorising by repetition. Our study gives aditional strength to these claims, as
students did, indeed, remember more words by using a visual mnemonic.
People from older age groups may also benefit from using these techniques, when their
memory functions no longer allow them to remember important names and addresses.
Perhaps these memory strategies could even be implemented into memory training
programmes targeting the elderly, as McDaniel and Bugg (2011) suggest. Scientists have in

fact studied how using mnemonics can affect the brain of an older person. Norwegian
researchers found that not only the method of Loci, a spatial mnemonic, improved the
elderlys ability to remember things, but it led to a thickening in brain areas concerned with
encoding abstract visual memory (Engvig, et al., 2010) . This means that mnemonics could
have an actual implication in improving the brain structures responsible for memory of older
adults. However, no research of this kind has been conducted to test if mental imagery
techniques would be as advantageous for this age group.
It would be interesting to see further research focusing on a comparison of the efficacy of this
mnemonic in different age groups. Perhaps following research designs could take young
adults as well as older adults, and observe how efficient mental imagery would be for both
concrete and abstract words.
In conclusion, however simple, this study has strengthened the claims of past research, by
showing that associating pairs of words in a mental image allows people to remember them
better than when using repetition. Nonetheless, it remains to, be seen whether this varies for
different qualities of words and for different age groups, so that it is then possible to apply
these strategies to helping individuals in various situations.

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