How Do You Remember All That?

curse of knowledge

curse of knowledge (Photo credit: Will Lion)

Sian Beilock wrote an interesting piece for Psychology Today a couple of years ago titled “The Curse of Expertise”…you can view it here.  (If you have ever struggled to operate a new cell phone or other piece of unfamiliar technology, you’ll feel vindicated when you read it.)  On March 6, we shared some thoughts after reading Annie Murphy Paul’s “Four Secrets to Lift the Curse of Expertise.”  It’s so easy to forget that we were not born knowing what we know, and even easier to forget the road we took to knowing it, especially  the challenges along that road.

My students often remind me of this when I spew forth some terminology or physiologic sequence  that I have know for more than half my life now.  “How do you remember all that?” they ask.  More often than not, the answer is a mnemonic.  Many students are unfamiliar with that term, and some might insist they don’t know any.  So I ask them, “How many days are in September?” and most reply, “Thirty” without hesitation.

Image to remember how many days a month has.

Image to remember how many days a month has. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“And how do you know that?”

“Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November,” they chirp…and these are not folks whose usual vocabulary includes “hath.”

“Which comes first…i or e?”

“When did Columbus discover America?”

Soon they realize that they do, in fact, know quite a few mnemonics.  At this point I typically go all Leonard Hoffstadter on them, and explain that Mnemosyne was the Greek goddess of memory (her daughter Mneme was the muse of memory), and so we call helpful memory devices “mnemonics.”  Harry Potter fans may remember Mnemone Radford, a witch who developed Memory Modifying Charms.

Anatomy, physiology, and healthcare have dozens and dozens of mnemonics, passed down from one generation of medical school students to the next. In years past, most medical students were young men with the usual interests of young men, so many of the time-honored mnemonics have a decidedly randy slant. The broad-minded reader can see many of these at

On the day that we study the twelve cranial nerves, my bell ringer asks students to guess how many mnemonics Wikipedia lists for those nerves on that very day. I just checked, and today there are eighteen, although there have been as many as thirty-six.  See them here.

English: Cranial Nerves

English: Cranial Nerves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The best mnemonics are often generated by the students themselves, and innovators quickly realize that coming up with a good one earns the admiration and appreciation of their classmates.  As the students learned the functions of the different portions, or “horns” of the gray matter of the spinal cord, Jordie shared that the ventral horns are motor, because “motors go vroom!”  No one missed that one on the test.

Sometimes students create their own mnemonics by connecting the information to something they already know.  Students may not fully understand the term “dorsal” on the first day, but many already know where to find a shark’s dorsal fin….on the back or spine side of its body. They may not remember the difference between pronation and supination of the forearm until I ask them how they’d hold a bowl of soup…with their palm turned toward the ceiling.  To keep the relative charges of cations and anions straight, we notice that you can write the former as CA+ION.

Once students realize that I have a lifetime’s worth of these to share…and that I love hearing their newly minted ones…class becomes a lot more fun.  Students can hardly wait to share the ones they’ve discovered or invented, taking pride in achieving a challenge, being part of a group, often finding a little humor, and owning something of worth.  And that is just what we’re aiming for.

Do you have favorite mnemonics in your area of expertise?  Please share!  We would love to start a collection here!


3 comments on “How Do You Remember All That?

  1. Hey guys, thanks for mentioning my blog post! You do such interesting work here.

  2. Brian says:

    Karen, this is a masterpiece. This is not only a great blog but belongs as an article in a noted magazine or a chapter in a classic book. Super! B

  3. […] How Do You Remember All That? ( […]

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