by Len Horridge

Sensory encoding

Each of us has a sensory system which we tend to prefer to use for encoding information. For example, some people remember information best when it is encoded visually; others use auditory encoding or encoding by touch, feel and emotion or even, for some types of information, encoding by smell or taste.

In reality, we all use all the systems; it is just that we have preferences. One way of improving your memory skills is to experiment in order to identify which sense you tend to prefer – visual, auditory or touch/feel – and then concentrate on techniques employing that particular sense.


There are many ways of visually encoding and retrieving information.

  • Use the strategy of associating concepts with visual images.
  • Use diagrams, charts, graphs and tables.
  • Take a mental snapshot of a page, noticing the headings, layout and any pictures.
  • Use mind maps or any form of idea web.
  • Draw cartoons or some other picture to associate with information.
  • Create mental images on the blackboard of your mind; sometimes, the more fantastic these are, the better.
  • Write notes. This allows you to not only practice (repeat) the information, but also to see the way it looks on the page (developing a visual memory that you may be able to retrieve later).

You will also find that storing the images in your mind’s eye will work better if you put them in a certain spatial location. Many people find this is slightly up and to the left, while some prefer to use up and to the right. Discover what works for you.


Think of an image you wish to remember: for example, the one mentioned in Association. Picture your cat, reading a newspaper, sitting on a toilet, under an apple tree.

Now, in your mind’s eye, ‘place’ this image to the left, to the right, upper left, upper right and so on. Also try placing it at different distances from you. Most people find a place that seems just right, though they couldn’t say why it feels right when put there.


This can be a very strong way to encode information, particularly when coupled with rhyme or music and then repeated over and over again.

Songs can be an easy way of getting something to stick in your mind. This is simple yet effective: a good song is aimed at recall, so the producers hope that you’ll remember it enough to buy it. How many times do you find a song in your head, even one that you don’t actually like? This happens because the combination of rhyme and rhythm forms an irresistibly strong pattern.

We can recall such songs because we have the rhyme, we have the rhythm, but also because we hear them over and over (sometimes at our own request, sometimes because of other people’s decisions).

Children recall stories well because of repetition; they are also taught songs to start to aid the retentive process. How many of us can still sing the alphabet song we were taught at primary school?

So, if you want to remember long passages, words or sayings, turn them into a song or chant and then rehearse them. This is how young students of the Quran learn the entire text, which is quite a memory feat.

Another example is the way most of us remember how many days there are in November: ‘Thirty days hath September, April, June and...’

Touch and feel

We use this type of encoding for physical tasks, from riding a bicycle to knitting or typing on the computer. We rehearse a particular task until it is ‘in the muscle’, and we can then do it without conscious thought. Think of the extremely complex choreography of dance, and the long hours of rehearsal that go into embedding and encoding the sequence of movements into muscle memory.

We also often use emotions as triggers to memories, but this is less useful for intentional encoding when memorising information.