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Learn by Making Associations

Lesson 8: Intentional and unintentional associations promote memory formation.

We have all heard that the key to memorization is associating new information to be memorized with related information that we already have memorized. Why does this work? How does it work to form memories?

Perhaps the first point we should make is that associations can be made passively and unintentionally or with deliberate attempt. Let us examine each way in turn.

Unintentional Associations

Ivan Pavlov was famous for discovering this kind of associative learning. He called it conditioned learning. The term was later modified to “classical conditioned learning,” because another form of passive associations was discovered that was called “operant conditioning.”

You may have heard about Pavlov’s study of dogs. He was initially studying digestion, and collected saliva and stomach juices to see how they responded to food. What he observed, not surprisingly, was that when hungry dogs smelled or saw food, they anticipated eating it by secreting saliva and stomach juices. This did not have to be learned—it’s an unconditioned response. It was just a natural, built-in response. What was surprising was that when the dog caretaker entered the room, the juices were released, even if the caretaker was not bringing food. They had learned to associate this person with food delivery. The two things went together.

Pavlov made a more formal test of this “conditioned learning” by pairing a different kind of cue with food delivery. For example, he might ring a bell and then the food was brought in. If that situation were repeated several times, the dogs started salivating when they heard the bell. They were now learning a new association: bell ringing meant that food was likely to show up. In general, the key is to pair an unlearned response with an associational cue and repeat the cue often enough that the brain learns that the two things go together.

Operant conditioning was spawned by the discovery of Edward Thorndike, a contemporary of Pavlov. Thorndike observed that learning occurs from realization of the consequences of behavior. That is, behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, and behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is less likely to be repeated. Procedures for optimizing this kind of conditioned were developed later by J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner.

  • Several principles of operant conditioning have been discovered:
  • Rewards seem to be more effective than punishments.
  • The animal must do something that can be associated with subsequent reinforcement, even though the animal has no foreknowledge of what it is supposed to do.
  • Learning complex repertoires can be developed in which the final desired behavior can be shaped through a succession of small steps in which elements of the final behavior are sequentially produced. As each step is learned, the trainer builds on that by adding the next logical small step.
  • Reinforcement needs to be provided each time the desired behavior occurs.

Intentional Associations

Image by W. R. Klemm
Create a cluster of associated cues.
Source: Image by W. R. Klemm

Associations are much more powerful if you make them consciously and intentionally. This approach puts the learner in charge of her own learning. The learner gets to choose which associations are the most powerful associational cues, and that likely varies from person to person.

The reason that intentional associations work to improve memory is that memories are stored as a network of related items. These items are part of a shared whole. Any one item serves as a cue for retrieving other parts of the memory network. Dragging out one item in the network often drags the whole network of memory items into conscious awareness.

Even so, certain principles apply here.

Pick Relevant Associations

Associations can be made with a person, place, object, situation, or emotion. Pick whatever works best for the item you are trying to remember.

Use Images

The most important act is to use images rather than words as the associational cues. Images contain detail in a way that is automatically associated with other elements in the image. Thus, it is especially important to select images that clearly and rather directly capture the essence of what you are trying to remember. Note the image used here of overlapping circles of slightly different shades of color. The point of association and shared relatedness is obvious.

You can make up your own images or use images that are already established for certain mnemonic systems. Mnemonics will be explored in detail in Lesson 9.

Why do images make the best associations? “A picture is worth a thousand words for scientific reasons: The brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. Forty percent of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are linked to the retina. Visual information comprises 90 percent of the data that comes to our brain, suggesting that our neurological pathways might even prefer pictures over text.”—Quoted from planview/what-is-kanban

Make the Association Concrete and Vivid

Vagueness won’t work well. Make associations that are clear, distinctive, and clearly relevant to what you are trying to memorize.

Tie the Association to the Key Item to be Remembered

Suppose you have to catch an airplane at 2 A.M. in the morning. The number two is the key element. How can you link that to flying in an airplane? You might think of airplanes as have two wings. Suppose the flight is 4 A.M? You might think of a big jet with four jet engines. Suppose the plane leaves at 3? You might imagine looking into the cockpit and seeing three people (perhaps pilot, co-pilot, and navigator).

Make the Association Personal, Add Strong Emotions

Relevance is key. Making an association personal gives it more relevance. Because emotions are processed in the same part of the brain that forms memories (the hippocampus), emotional associations become strongly embedded in memory.

Repeat a Newly Created Association Right Away

An association has to be encoded, just like an original item to be remembered. Once you have created the association, repeat it several times right away, and then a few more times later in the same day.

W. R. Klemm
Source: W. R. Klemm


Next lesson from “Memory Medic” to be posted soon: Lesson #9: Mnemonics
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To check out my four books on learning and memory, see my web site:

Klemm, W. R. (2018) Better Grades. Less Effort (Benecton(