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  6. Limitations of Mnemonics

While mnemonics are exceptionally good for encoding large amounts of information, they do have some practical limitations. The following presents some factors that can have a negative influence on your ability to use mnemonics.


The biggest limiting factor in using mnemonics is time — both time spent learning the mnemonic systems as well as the time to apply them. If you are just going to use the system once it may not be worth it. However, by learning a system and using it regularly, the time it takes to use decreases and it can be worth your while for having learned it.

Information may be presented too fast to encode. It takes time to encode information — especially abstract information that requires the creative generation of concrete images. Furthermore, decoding information takes time. But if you have the opportunity to use a mnemonic system, the time taken to encode information can pay off by reducing the time taken in reviewing and further study of the information.

Encoding verbal information (say in acrostic, acronym, or rhyme) also takes time — sometimes more time than to just remember the list. However, information encoded in such a way often stays in memory longer partly due to repetition.

In general, practice helps reduce time taken in both encoding as well as decoding. As you become more proficient in mnemonic techniques you will begin using them quickly and automatically.

Abstract material

As mentioned above, it can take longer to form an image for an abstract word or idea. It can be very difficult to form images for some abstract words. In these cases verbal techniques may be more effective.

The images used for abstract words are really only a cue for the actual idea. It is possible that the cue may fail to work. Since images can have multiple interpretations it is possible that these interpretations can interfere with each other — especially for abstract material. A given image can be used to encode a variety of abstract cues. When decoding the image it may not be clear which cue was being encoded.

Imagery ability

Not everyone is used to thinking in terms of images. Studies show that children have an easier time thinking with images than adults do.

In general, most people do have the ability to form mental images but it may take some practice to get used to using them.

Verbatim memory

Mnemonic techniques do not lend themselves the memorizing information verbatim such as a poem or literary passage. However, mnemonic techniques can be used to memorize a framework of the main ideas and which order they come in.

Maintenance and transfer

It is unclear how well mnemonic skills get transferred to tasks other than the ones that were trained on. For example, if you learn a technique for memorizing a shopping list, this technique may not help you on your next French test.

It can take some effort and initiative to figure out how to apply the specific techniques and the general principles of mnemonics to whatever material you are trying to learn. Also, many of life’s tasks may be better solved with other systems, such as writing making a written list.

The use of mnemonic skills suffers from the same problem as any skill — they often do not become habit and their use decreases. The two main ways to deal with this issue are:

  1. Increased training and practice with strategies
  2. A thorough explanation of how and why they work and when to use them

Related Pages

Visual Mnemonics
Verbal Mnemonics
Limitations of Mnemonics
Mnemonic Systems
Applications of Mnemonic Systems