The Link System of Memory

Have trouble remembering things? This mental imagery exercise can help with that.

Short version

Recall can be improved by “chaining” words together through mental imagery.


  • Better memory of facts
  • Better performance on tests


First, a challenge! Read the list of words below. Spend up to 3 minutes reviewing them. There will be a test later to see how many you remember!

  • Book
  • Boat
  • Smoke
  • Guitar
  • Apple
  • Paper
  • Jacket
  • Moon
  • Paintbrush
  • Table

OK, good, now scroll down so that they are out of view and don’t go back up and review them again!

Before we get to the technique itself, let’s first learn a quick lesson about the nature of memory.

Two things that significantly impact whether you’ll remember something are association, and novelty.

We’re more likely to remember things when we already have existing knowledge on the topic. If you’re an expert in quantum physics, and you read a new book on the topic, you’ll probably be able to discuss it in great depth in your next Physicists’ Book Club meeting.

The things you already know on the topic are like “hooks”, onto which you can hang the new information. As you read the book you’re thinking “Ah, that idea is similar to the Many Worlds theory…”, “Hmm this idea has merit, but it might violate the principle of locality…”, “Oh, this idea may have application in superconductors!”

That’s association.

We’re also more likely to remember things if they are more brazen, weird, or otherwise outlandish – that is, if they violate our expectations in some way.

Imagine you meet 10 people at a boring work event. Nine are wearing grey suits, but one person is wearing a red one. Who are you most likely to remember, and talk about then next day? The red suited one, most likely. They stand out from the rest, so the brain naturally pays attention to them.

That’s novelty.

The link system is a deliberate application of novelty and association, which we can use to remember information.

But before we get on to how to do it, let’s test your memory. How many of the 10 words from earlier can you remember?

How to do it

With the link system, you take two words, and create a novel association out of them. You do this through visualisation – you create a mental image of the two words together (association), but you make the image as ridiculous, silly, and outlandish as you possibly can (novelty).

So say you want to remember “cat” and “door”. You could make an image of yourself walking up to your front door, but instead of the door, there’s a big, ginger, rectangular cat in the doorway, with it’s cute face in the middle. It’s paw sticks out where the door handle should be. It meaws at you as you open the door.

So to memorise a list of words like you did earlier, you would first create a mental image that links the first word to the second one. Then you’d create an image that links the second to the third.

For example, if the third word after “cat” and “door” was “trophy,” you’d now be linking “door” and “trophy.” Maybe you’d imagine a sports star on the “1” position on the podium. But instead of being passed a trophy, they are passed your front door. They take your front door, smiling from ear to ear, kiss it, and hold it above their heads victoriously!

So when you’re remembering the words, you know you’re on “trophy”, then you just need to think what other image you had that was related to a trophy.

Get the idea? Hope so, because here comes another test! Try again with the set of words below. For each one, create a big, crazy, silly, colourful, unusual image linking it with the previous one:

  • Chair
  • Dolphin
  • Bus
  • Pen
  • Piano
  • Bridge
  • Hat
  • Dog
  • Shoe
  • Tree

What if you don’t have a list of words?

It’s not often in modern life that we’re asked to remember a list of words? This might be the first two times, in fact! So how can you apply this technique?

You use the technique of distillation – you take the things you need to remember, and distill them into single words.

So if you have to give a speech, you’d do the following:

  1. Write down the main points, jokes, and other comments you want to make in order.
  2. Distill each point into a single word which will remind you of that point.
  3. Use the link system to connect each point.

This is also useful for exams. If there are a number of key studies, points or arguments that you think you’ll need to reference in your answer, you simply distill them and link them. Then on the exam day, you’ll be able to reel out your list, and then use the ones you actually need based on the question you get asked.

Repetition matters too

When you master the link system, you’ll usually just need to link your words once. Over time you’ll get more imaginative when coming up with images, and you’ll get a better sense of the types of images that you tend to remember.

However, repetition works too. So do give yourself a trial run – try to reel off your words and see which you remember. Go over your mental images again to drill them into your mind. And update any weak links.

Oh, speaking of reeling off words, let’s test the recall from the second test. How many of those words can you remember?

I’ll bet it’s more than the first. Later today, or tomorrow if it’s already late, try to write down as many words as you can from both of the lists. In all likelihood, you’ll remember few few from the first list, and most, if not all, from the second.