What makes a good mnemonic image?

Fletcher Hardison

What if I told you that a simple, still image can be all you need to create a mnemonic with real sticking power?

You might think that's nuts. You've probably heard that mental images need to be bright, colorful, crazy, perhaps obscene, and fully of action. While I agree that this can work for some people, I don't believe that it is necessary – or even the most effective – for everyone.

I am a mnemonist for whom complicated, action filled images don't work. If you feel overwhelmed by having to invent action filled stories for each thing you want to memorize, let me propose an alternative for your consideration that I learned about through Swedish author, teacher, and Grand Master of Memory Mattias Ribbing.

I listened to everything of Ribbing's that I could find and finally decided to learn to read Swedish so I could read his books. This post is primarily based on his book The Way to a Master Memory.^book

Characteristic of a memory friendly image

The core of many memory techniques is converting information into an image. Ribbing has his own take on how to do this based on the Giordano Memory System.

He begins with the principle that we can't memorize things in isolation, rather they they need to be connected. So visualizing one image by itself is not helpful. We need to create couplings of images that touch, sit on, or even pierce each other in some way. If you are memorizing texts or foreign language vocabulary, then connecting images makes things easier anyway.

Ribbing says "To be able to quickly create good couplings [of images], we need to to visualize memory-friendly images" (clarification added). He sets forth the following criteria for what qualifies as a memory-friendly image:

This means images of physical objects that we can see in front of us in the room, big, in color, three-dimensional and detailed. The images must also have contours that clearly delimit them from the environment (Ribbing 2011, translation mine).

He also adds that we should use the first image that comes to mind that fulfills these criteria. Finally, that image should be still.

If this sounds like a lot, that's ok. It becomes nearly automatic with practice.

The principles

I have rephrased his criteria so that they can be remembered with the phrase "TeDDy'S CaFe." Imagine Winnie the Pooh having a coffee in Starbucks or your café of choice.

The image below is the size of an index card and can be printed and kept with you as a reminder of these principles.

Two final points from Ribbing and my own experience:

Try to imagine the image in front of you taking up space. This takes some practice but I think it pays off. I often look to where various parts of it would be if it were really in front of me. Ribbing has said in some of his talks that this helps (find out more here and here). I agree.

When you visualize an image, take a few seconds to really see it. Notice what details that your mind provides. Even if you just imagine a book, your brain is probably thinking of a specific book. So take the time to see what book you are seeing in your mind. Chronicles of Narnia? Lord of the Rings? Oxford English Dictionary?

For example, I wanted to use a knight to remember England (I was memorizing World Cup wins at the time). As I paid attention to the details, I realized that I was imagining a crusader knight with a red cross and white tunic over his armor. These details make the image "sticky" mentally.

Encoding techniques

Thinking up images can be challenging when we first begin. Ribbing describes three kinds of encoding strategies that we can use to convert information to images. I don't consciously think "Oh, I'm using a symbolic encoding right now," but knowing that these three techniques are solid strategies can give direction when you don't know how to encode something. They can also give you assurance that you are doing things the right way when you have doubts. Doubt is something I think we all experience when learning memory techinques.

They are as follows:

  1. Consonance encoding (A sounds like B)
  2. Symbolic encoding (A is closely associated with B)
  3. Experiential encoding (A relates to B in my personal experience)

Consonance encoding

With consonance encoding (think rhyming) we use a similar sounding word to encode the information we want to memorize. Ribbing notes that this is especially useful for learning foreign language vocabulary.

For example, to learn the Spanish word casa 'house', we might use the English word cash to help remember the pronunciation. So our mental image would be a house made out of cash.

Symbolic encoding

With this kind of encoding we use a symbol to encode the new information. For example, a heart is often used as a symbol for "love". A flag could be used in place of the country it represents. The idea is to use something closely associated with thing to be remembered as a replacement/stand in for it.

Experiential encoding

With experiential encoding we encode information using a personal connection. For example, I memorized the word Benjaminite by using an baby blue electric guitar because a good friend of mine whose middle name is Benjamin plays a baby blue Fender.

To use this technique find something from your experience that helps you remember the new information.

Regardless of the technique you choose, the image you create should follow the "TeDDy'S CaFe" principles.


Many memory technique teachers recommend using bright, action-filled stories to convert information into something that can stick in long-term memory. However, that's not the case for all memory teachers. I personally find creating such images difficult and that all the action makes them hard to visualize.

I prefer to use "TeDDy'S CaFe" style images. I find them less stressful to work with and more effective for me. When looking for images, we can encode information using one of three time tested teqniques: rhyming, symbolic association, or by using something from our own experience.

No matter where you come down on action filled or still images, the other principles of what makes a memory-friendly (mnemonic) image will help you strengthen your skills as a mnemonist, help you memorize things faster, and remember them for longer.

Happy memorizing!