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Mnemotechnics - A Review of the Giordano Memory System

Disclaimer: Giordano Memory System is a registered trade mark owned by the School of Phenomenal Memory. This article does not attempt to cover the entirety of what the School teaches in depth. Readers are advised to contact the School and study the GMS Manual for a comprehensive discussion of this system. This article is my own review; fair usage applies where appropriate.


If I could name one single factor that made teaching and learning as performed in schools grossly inefficient, it would be the fact that students are expected to memorise information without being taught any systematic method for doing so.  Much of what teachers recognise as "academic ability" is not necessarily the ability to understand and apply, but the ability to retain in memory for the purpose of repeating on an exam paper.

Study technology, as discussed in an earlier article, places great emphasis on the understanding and application of what one is learning, and for the purpose of grasping the general practice and principles of a subject, this method is second to none.  Unfortunately, just as in school, the only approach study tech teaches for the purpose of memorisation is drill, as it assumes that if facts cannot be recalled, then they have not been taken to the level of conceptual understanding.  While this logic works well as a general rule in regard to non-specific principles and practical procedures, it falls down where volumes of abstract data such as numbers or codes, detailed facts, lengthy lists, charts and tables of data etc. must be known.

Where a large amount of such data must be committed to memory, in a rapid and efficient fashion, a more organised approach needs to be taken.  That brings us onto the subject of mnemotechnics, or memory training.

There are numerous books and courses on memory techniques available in any bookstore or online.  However, many readers give up trying to implement the techniques for their own studies or everyday needs, because they are limited in scope.  In addition, most of the memory improvement methods described in popular paperbacks or personal development websites are fundamentally flawed, as I hope will become evident as I describe a mnemotechnical system that actually works.

In 1990 Vladimir Kozarenko made an in-depth study of the memory techniques used by classic mnemonists and orators, and the techniques described in the works of Giordano Bruno, the Italian philosopher, mathematician and astronomer.  He synthesised and refined these basic principles to construct a mnemotechical system that was simple to learn, efficient to use and could be modified and adapted as necessary to real-life situations, and not just used to remember playing cards and shopping lists.  Although many of the practical elements of memory training were known to the ancient orators, modern discoveries in neuropsychological research additionally enabled Kozarenko to develop a whole new theory of memory to explain how and why these techniques worked so well.  He named this modernised system the "Giordano Memory System", or GMS.


According to GMS principles, visual images are the foundation of the thinking process, and the entirety of the techniques are based on them.  Material to be memorised is encoded into visual images, connections created between them in an exact sequence, and this data is then fixed using specialised fixation techniques.

If this description sounds very familiar to those who have studied other memory books or systems, then let it be known that the similarity ends there.  GMS in fact contradicts most of what is taught in books by Tony Buzan, Kevin Trudeau, Dr. Bruno Furst or Harry Lorrayne.

Most such authors simply throw a pot-pourri of techniques at the reader, in the mistaken assumption that more is better where the presentation of various techniques is concerned.  Thus we are offered the Major system, the body-peg system, the number-shape system, the number-sound system, the story-link system, and the list goes on.  This tendency leaves the reader with no idea what technique to use for which purpose, as none of the aforementioned authors have ever synthesised the all the various techniques they teach into a fully integrated, logical system.

There are no "jingles", acronyms or creative stories used in GMS.  It does not teach the student to attempt to see the visualised pictures in action, and drawing emotional content into the memorised material plays no part in it.  These approaches were found to merely over-complicate the memorisation process and slow the student down.  Books written by former world memory championship athletes were found by Kozarenko to be full of such advice, but most of the heats in such contests place very great emphasis on speed, and there simply wouldn't be time for the competitor to fill their images with action, emotional content etc. at the speed that he or she would need to memorise in order to participate.  The fact that advice is being given to readers that the author himself doesn't use is probably not deliberate disingenuousness on the part of the author, but rather indicates a lack of understanding of what in fact makes mnemotechnics work.

GMS teaches that an isolated image or datum cannot be memorised; only the connections between them are memorised.  The data must link to something, otherwise they will be impossible to memorise.  In order for recollection to occur, a stimulus of some kind must prompt the retrieval of the data.
Data such as numbers, dates and textual information are described in GMS as "sign data" or "precise data".  A fiction work contains very little precise data; a chemistry text is full of it.  A page full of chemical equations would create far fewer visual images in the reader's imagination than would the fiction book, hence most people would consider it harder to remember.

GMS provides a way in which this hard to remember data can artificially be encoded into visual images and affixed in the memory, and which can be easily decoded back into the original material later on when the need arises.

Encoding techniques

Abstract words (words which do not have any visual sense) can also be transformed into visual images.  This is known as the symbolisation technique.  For instance, think of the word "love".  The word "love" doesn't evoke a picture, but most people would think of a heart.  That would be a good symbolisation for "love".  The student must find their own set of images according to their own experiences.  Usually, the image that appeared first in the imagination is the best one to choose.  If it proves difficult choosing an image, it would be wise to consult a good dictionary to ensure that the meaning of the word is fully grasped.
Familiar information contains elements that cause visual images to appear.  When a perceived data element spontaneously prompts a visual image, this technique of linking to familiar information can be used.  This technique is particularly useful for transforming names into images, e.g. when reading about the solar system, "Mars" could be visualised as a Mars chocolate bar.  Where an image is not spontaneously prompted, other methods of encoding should be used.

Many foreign words, names and terms are similar to their English counterparts, and where that is the case, those can be used as visual representations.  By remembering each image and pronouncing them aloud (and thereby making use of the additional modality of sound and the muscle memory), the visual concept and pronunciation of the word can easily be remembered.

For words or names which have no similarity to any English word, the method of creation from syllables can be used.  Any syllable can be developed into a meaningful word by adding elements in front of it, behind it, or on both sides.  The technique is to break down the word into its component syllables, turn each syllable into a complete, meaningful word.  For instance, a meaningless term such as "machbasrul" can be transformed into easily visualised words like "machine", "basket" and "ruler".  The final step is to connect these three pictures as one unit, taking "machine" as the base (a large picture), and seeing the "basket" and the "ruler" connected to different parts of the machine.  This will be sufficient prompt to recall the original word "machbasrul".

The distinctive feature technique is used for memorising a particular person.  A distinctive feature can be singled out from the appearance of a person you do not know.  When the person is someone you know (and you wish to create the image in order to connect other information to them, such as a telephone number), you can choose distinctive features on the basis of their job, hobbies, habits, idiosyncracies etc.  It is not easy to pick out distinctive features on people, since the mind tends to distinguish objects that have differing contours, rather than objects of similar shape whose details differ.  Kozarenko recommends spending some time practising this technique on people in a public place, for example while waiting for the bus.

Names are usually forgotten automatically, and not because we did not pay attention (as writers of memory books are all too ready to chastise us for), but because they constitute a one-element information message which is not connected to anything.  As we know that memory works on the basis of connections, in order for the person's name to be remembered, it must be connected to something, usually a distinctive feature on the person.

A key technique that must be mastered if one is to use this system effectively is the use of figurative codes.  Figurative codes are visual images that symbolise letters, numbers, weekdays, months, foreign language alphabets, geographic locations, people's names, mathematical operations, and terms and signs used in specialist subjects.  These types of data do not by themselves readily produce visual imagery, thus the figurative code for each must be something that can be easily visualised.  Further, it is time consuming to hunt for a visual image representing the number 42 every time it occurs (perhaps in a bank account number or pass code).  The student must choose the same figurative code, learn it, and use it to represent the number 42 every time.

Techniques for Connection of Images

No matter what larger memorisation schema is being used for a specific body of data, in GMS only two images at a time are ever connected in the imagination.  It should take about two seconds to visualise the first image, two seconds to visualise the second, and then two seconds to see the two together, making six seconds in total to create one connection.  This six-second rule is taught to students of GMS right from the beginning; if a student takes longer than six seconds to form one connection, then an instructor must assume that the student is doing something wrong.  Experienced users can of course create connections much more quickly.

Visualised images must be large (take up the entire mental visual field), detailed, in colour, and three dimensional.  To connect the two images, it may be necessary to rotate them, imagine them from different sides, re-size their proportions, or perform other mental manipulations to make them fit together and get a connection that is easy to use.  In contrast to other memory systems, there is no requirement to make the connections "illogical".  Some people prefer familiar types of connections, others find unfamiliar types of connections easier to memorise; it is a matter of personal choice.  Irregardless of whether the individual finds familiar or unfamiliar connection types preferable, the second image of the pair is connected to the first either by piercing it, stacking on top of it, or being placed to the right hand side of it.

An association of a group of image elements can be created that encode particular information, as in the example of the nonsense word mentioned above.  The first or principal element of the information message forms the association base, with other information elements being affixed to selected parts of the base image.  Associations can contain from two to six images.  Association elements (the connected parts) always run from left to right or top to bottom, the same way that we read text, thus ensuring that the order of the information is preserved.

These associations can subsequently themselves be connected, either by connecting the various association bases among themselves, or by connecting the association bases to a system of support images – images which themselves contain no information message, but use sequences of familiar or pre-memorised information to prompt recall of data which has been connected to it.

Methods of Sequence Memorisation

The Cicero method (also known as the Roman Room method or the Method of Loci) uses familiar images from rooms in your house, workplace, your friends' houses, and other familiar locations.  The technique is to decide on a specific order of rooms (for example, hallway, living room, kitchen) and then select a predetermined number of objects, working clockwise around each room.  Images should be chosen that will later allow the user to single out five image parts in each one – the reason for this will be made clear later, under the heading "Support Image Blocks".  Other information which one wishes to remember can be attached to images of these familiar objects.

The Free Association Method is a way of remembering a sequence of images that have natural inter-relations, for instance, where there is a cup, there is often a saucer.  This technique is useful when the user needs to quickly form additional support images.

Parts of an image can be singled out in order to economise on images, and when creating associations.  Image parts are chosen from left to right or top to bottom to preserve the correct order of the connected data.

Long chains of images are not used in GMS (apart from during training exercises where long-term storage of the memorised data is not required) because they tend to deconstruct over time, with only the first few and last few items being remembered.  Short chains of images are however used in combination with other support images.  The entire chain is never visualised in one take, but each pair of images is visualised and connected in turn.  It is essential to distinguish which is the first and which is the second image of each pair.  The technique of having the second image pierce the first, stack on top of it, or connect to the right of it is used.

Often it is important to memorise images in sequence, while leaving each image in the sequence free for other sub-images, as in an association.  For this purpose, the Russian Doll method is used, whereby images nest inside one another, like a set of Matryoshka dolls.  To connect the next image in the sequence, one must zoom in on a part of an image and visualise the second image inside the magnified part of the first.  When recalling, the second image of the pair will not appear in the mind's eye until one mentally increases the size of the relevant part of the first image of the pair.

The return method is a combination of the Chain method and the singling out of image parts.  This is used for memorisation of difficult textual extracts containing many often-repeated figurative codes (two and three-digit numbers, names etc.).  Images representing precise data are memorised using the Chain method, but when data is encountered for which a figurative code is required, it is connected with an image part, rather than the previous image.

Material memorised can be recalled backwards, by simply scrolling through the visual images in the opposite direction, or by type, for example, everything containing the number 25.

Support Image Blocks

Before describing how all these techniques fit together to form blocks of data, a word of warning: figurative codes are never, ever used as support images!  This is one of the key mistakes taught in other memory systems, which invariably teach some form of pictonumeric system of figurative codes, and then teach the reader to peg other information to it.  This is wrong because a fresh set of images recorded on the support images will tend to overwrite the information that was stored previously.  It becomes increasingly difficult to use figurative codes for their intended purposes (the recall of numbers, letters etc.) when they have been misused in this way, because of the confusion of different information that may have been connected to them at different times.

This "overwrite" mechanism can be used to the mnemonist's advantage, however, when information becomes out-of-date and it is necessary to replace it with fresh data, for example, when a business associate changes his contact details.

Support image blocks consist of multiple levels of support images.  This may sound complex, but it is actually an extremely efficient way of generating almost infinite quantities of easily-memorised images onto which useful data can be connected.  Different support image blocks can be used to organise different databases in one's memory and keep different types of data separate – study data in one location, personal and business data in another, and yet another kept free for memorisation practice and training.  Obviously, these support blocks are prepared in advance before attempting to connect other information to them.  It is a good idea to always have one or two pre-prepared support image blocks in your memory so that they will be available when needed.

The first level, or the base images of the support block, would consist of Cicero images from a room in your house or some other familiar location.  For example, let's say your first room was the hallway, and the first image you selected was the front door to your house.

The second level would be the selection of image parts.  Take the image of the front door, and distinguish five separate parts, e.g. the glass panel, the doorbell, the lock, the letterbox and the kick plate.

The third level would consist of a short chain of random images connected to each sub-image above, e.g. a radio, an electric guitar, an alarm clock, a teakettle and a bicycle pump.  The first image of the sequence is connected to the first image part of the second level, e.g. the radio image is connected to the image of the glass panel of the front door.

The fourth level consists of breaking the third level images into parts, e.g. distinguish the radio's carry strap, aerial, tuning scale, tuning knob and speaker.  These final image parts are the images onto which your useful data will be connected.

If all the sub-images of the front door have a similar chain of random images, each of which are further broken down into five parts, this would give you a support block of 125 support images – and that is only based on the first Cicero image (the front door) in your first room!  As you can see, huge numbers of support images can gradually be built up from relatively few base images.

Fixing the Data

It is all very well being able to memorise data using the above techniques, but unless the material is activated and recalled, it will erase.

A user of GMS is able to control how long the data is kept in memory, according to need.  Data memorised as part of training exercises to build the skill of these techniques does not need to be kept, and therefore only one control recall is necessary to check the quality and speed of memorisation.  Useful data, on the other hand, can be kept for a lifetime if need be, using an appropriate repetition schedule.  Repetition, in GMS, does not mean rehearsing the data to memorise it, but rather refers to the fixation of data by means of multiple recollections.

The frequency and timing of such repetitions will, of course, depend on the quantity and complexity of the data, as well as the memorisation skill of the person using it.  An approximate schedule might be as follows:

1st repetition: 40-60 minutes after first memorisation.
2nd repetition: approx. three hours later.
3rd repetition: after approx. another six hours.
4th repetition: the next morning.

This number of repetitions would probably be the minimum necessary.  The more often the data is repeated, the better it will be fixed.  To store the data for a lifetime, it should be repeated at least once every six weeks.

If any part of the memorised data is no longer required, all that the user needs to do is stop repeating it, and eventually it will be naturally pruned out.

Developing the Skill

Students coming to GMS expecting a quick fix really ought to look elsewhere.  Nothing can be gained by merely reading about the techniques, or perhaps trying them out once or twice.  It takes intense preparation, study and practice to develop the necessary facility in using the techniques, concentration, stability of attention or mental stamina to memorise vast quantities of data.  Regular training must be done to build up to the level of skill where one can memorise a whole book or lecture.

Doing a two hour GMS lesson at least three times a week is the bare minimum for most people to begin to build up the skill, but preferably one lesson a day should be taken.  For those who struggle with the lessons, there are the "psychotechnical exercises" – additional drills to assist the student with their concentration and visualisation abilities.

Eventually, it is possible to create 300 and more connections in one sitting (and this level of skill will almost certainly be necessary if one wishes to memorise entire books).  This skill can then be pushed to a whole new level by practising with the TV on in the background, so one really learns to focus the attention and block out distractions.

Final Word

A person can only use the data that is available for recall.  By increasing the amount of data that can be held in the memory at any one moment, then it stands to reason that the ability to think reflectively or creatively, to analyse or synthesise information, will be greatly increased.  To my knowledge, no formal "before and after" IQ testing has ever been conducted.  However, after developing one's memory skills to even a fraction of the level described above, the repetition of a short series of random numbers and letters on a test, forwards, backwards or in any desired order, would be extremely easy.

For further information on the Giordano Memory System please visit the School of Phenomenal Memory website.

(c) Gwyneth Wesley Rolph 2010.


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