Coming up with good visualizations is either very easy or very hard depending on the subjects. Here are some guidelines.
The visualization needs to have some meaning for you. If you cannot define what you visualize, or the visualization generates “who cares” or “I am confused” emotions, you need to change something.
The visualizations that are based on autobiographical memory are automatically meaningful. The logical connections we understand, the funny stuff that makes us smile, the heroes of our books, games, and movies are usually meaningful.
Meaningless visualizations are typically generated by combining several words into one visualization without introducing a common context. For example: “bluebird sitting with a red pen”. There is no clear connection between subject and object, and sitting is not very interesting. Usually, this is solved by finding more details to remember and introducing another object. For example “bluebird impaling crocodile with a red pen”. Now, we have a common context and a violent event.
Violent events tend to be meaningful, however, the whole context needs to be neutral or pleasant: otherwise, you will not want to review the visualization.
Some visualizations are generic. Like “visualize a cup”. The cup needs to be of some kind: it has size, color, material, texture. We can reuse some cup we remember, like what you would see in Google images e.g. “a transparent glass cup I have in my office”. Alternatively, the specifics of the cup can come from additional words we want to remember. For example “a rare cup of fine porcelain with an image of a bluebird impaling crocodile with a red pen”. Notice, that we add more words to existing visualization, and make the visualization better. Remembering just one word might be harder than remembering 10, as it is harder to make the word specific.
A very personal and specific cup I use every day is a bit boring. When we reuse simple everyday objects or images from our visual dictionary, the result can be so boring that we will not notice it. To make it interesting and capture the attention something must be strange. As always we can generate interest by connecting two ordinary objects from different contexts. For example, both my cup at work and my gray British cat at home are very ordinary, but if the cat would put its head into the cup the result would become interesting.
Context and innovation
Usually, we put several visualizations into a larger memory structure (an animated story, a mindmap, a mental palace). The consecutive visualizations should belong to the same context and each next visualization should add something new to the story.
For example, we can have a room in a mental palace with eight athletes doing different kinds of sport. The common element would be sports, moreover, the athletes should be involved in similar situations like an epic fail. And then each athlete will introduce a different way to fail.
PAO (person performing an action with an object) visualizations tend to be very formal, especially when you need to remember numbers. Then we introduce context through the details, for example modifying the hairstyle of the visualizations.
If the visualization is not the first thing that comes to our head and we take time to generate it, we still need to make it feel like a visual association. The visualization which are hard to produce may be hard to reproduce when we try to recreate the visualization from our memory.
For example, simple discreet objects and polished textures are easier to visualize than groups and fractals. If you want to remember a tree, do not visualize 1000 leaves, and if you want ants do not create a colony. There is an exception to this idea: when creating massive memory palaces, we reuse very complex objects. However, we do not create these objects from scratch, we simply recall some location which we visit and revisit many many times.
It is perfectly OK and even recommended to reuse visualizations, but then these visualizations need to be adapted to their current context.
The whole idea of a dictionary of visualizations for abstract words is avoiding the need to create new complex visualizations in subjects we work with. We generate the visualization once and can spend 5 min to do that. The next time we meet the same word, the visualization should come immediately.
One of the things we usually teach is a “peg method”: fixed visualizations for numbers between 1 and 10, each connecting with up to 4 words we need to remember. Each 4 digits number generates a very different interaction between the fixed visualizations with a very specific result. The competitive variation of this method involves putting 8 PAO visualizations into each room of a memory palace, where each PAO encodes a 3 digit or 6 digit number.
Then we put several visualizations of this kind into one memory structure, and visualizations start to change. They get new details, penetrate each other physically, mutate and merge. The context can make each visualization unique, and we really should leverage this.
If we try to remember useless information, we can do it for a while, but are likely to forget the next day. However, if we use this information actively to achieve some real goal other then memorization, we are more likely to remember.
For example, when students present their work in front of other students, they tend to remember that particular work better than anything else in the course. If you can integrate something that you learned in a real situation and see that it helps, memorization is almost guaranteed.
We cannot force students to use their visualizations, so instead, we try to question our knowledge from different perspectives. This method is less perfect but easier to apply.
Our visualization should reliably represent the information we want to remember. There are often some minor gaps due to different representation: by association, as a person/action/object, in an artificial context. If there is a huge gap between the stuff we visualize and the stuff we really want to remember we have a problem. We might remember our visualization very well, but fail to recreate the original information from the visualization.
This gap is very easy to see when trying to remember foreign languages by association. We generate a great visualization, but the word we recreate is a different word with a different meaning. This is puzzling and confusing. In such cases, we usually supplement our visualization with logical reasoning or audio memory.
Now create 5 simple not meaningful and not specific visualization for some 5 random words. Each visualization is useless on its own. Try to combine them into one single object. If you succeed, this object is likely to be memorable.