The Distinctive Feature Technique

This method is used to memorize monotype objects, that is, objects that are very similar in general contours and differ only in details - people, for example.

Every one of us had a nickname at school. One was “Joker,” another – “Donut,” others – “Ice Queen” or “Professor.” All these “Jokers,” “Donuts,” “Ice Queens,” and “Professors” are considered to have distinctive features. Children do not usually like last and first names since they are hard to memorize. Nicknames are not the same; they are individual, so one can instantly understand who is it that we are talking about.

A nickname reflects the most important thing in a personality, appearance, or reminds us of a last name in a shorter form. It is very important that a nickname is usually a word that is easy to represent as a familiar visual image and, thus, easy to memorize.

Distinctive Feature Functions

A distinctive feature allows remembering a particular person.

Any precise information about a person is linked to distinctive features: first and last name, address, phone number, automobile license plate number, etc.

Distinctive features are easily memorized in certain order, which makes it possible to consecutively remember information about a group of people.

Singling out a Distinctive Feature on a Photograph

A distinctive feature perceived simultaneously with a photo, is a natural association and, consequently, is memorized automatically. As soon as you see a distinctive feature, a general image of the person appears in your imagination.

A distinctive feature on a photo can be anything: clothing elements, haircut, appearance defects, a similarity to someone else. Even an element of a background can be a distinctive feature.

Singling out a distinctive feature on a photograph can be useful for memorizing information about outstanding scientists, writers, musicians, or politicians.

Analogical methods can be used to memorize a sequence of any group of pictures, including a sequence of illustrations in a study book.

Here is an example of singling out a distinctive feature on a photograph: say, you see a photo of a girl with a strange earring in her ear. In this case, the “earring” image can be chosen as a distinctive feature. When you examine the photo and pay attention to the distinctive feature you have found, your brain will automatically fix the connection between the distinctive feature and her face. Memorization is AUTOMATIC. You do not need to think about it since the images are already CONNECTED.

A brief example of singling out a distinctive feature on an illustration is when you study a book about aquarium fish and need to memorize both the common and scientific names and the appearance of the fish. You need to choose a distinctive feature on an illustration. Say, a fish is photographed with an unusual shell in the background. In this case, this shell might be chosen as a distinctive feature; you can later connect the name(s) of the fish to this image.

Singling Out a Distinctive Feature of a Person You Know Well

Even if you know a person very well, you will probably need to memorize some additional information about them: They may have a habit of changing their cell phone number every month.

In this case, a distinctive feature is found on the basis of their job, hobbies, good or bad habits, idiosyncrasies, manner of walking, speaking, dressing, or their character traits. If your acquaintance is a police officer, you might associate him with his badge. If he collects stamps, his distinctive feature might be “a magnifying glass.”

You must not remember an image of a person when memorizing information about him. All people are the same for your brain. Each person must be marked with an individual visual image during memorization.

Singling Out a Distinctive Feature of an Unknown Person Standing in Front of You (“Meeting” Situation)

During the first meeting, a person usually relies on his memory; after a few minutes, he realizes that he has forgotten the name of the person he has just met. This situation is too common.

If you know that you will be meeting someone new, try to look at this person and select a distinctive feature beforehand. By the time he opens his mouth to introduce himself, an image should be ready in your brain. You will then connect your associations to the image you get from the name.

Have you ever wondered why it is only a name that is always forgotten? It seems that the information you have just received is automatically deleted. The truth is that a single word is not memorized, because it is a one-element information message; thus,  the brain has nothing to connect it to. When you have prepared a distinctive feature in advance, you have what you need to create a connection - a name plus a distinctive feature. Do not forget about the main paradox of memory: the brain can only memorize connections.

It is not easy to single out a distinctive feature of an unknown person. You must train yourself to do so. Try to single out such features for ten random people in a subway or on a bus. Just like any other encoding process, this operation will take quite a long time to perform. You need to learn to find distinctive features and be able to find them fast.

Singling Out a Distinctive Feature of a Person Whose Image is Unfamiliar to You

In this case, you only need to memorize a person’s last name and then single out the distinctive feature. If the last name is Wolf, then, obviously, the person can be represented with the image of a “Wolf.” If a person’s last name is McLoud, he can be marked with an image of a “loudspeaker.” If his last name is Jordan, he can be represented with an image of a “basketball” (Michael Jordan).

Singling Out a Distinctive Feature of an Interior

It is often enough to simply note an element of the interior where a person lives or works. Thus, in a dentist’s office, it can be a special armchair. In a hospital, it is a window at the reception desk. Associations connect the data you need to the objects you have singled out.

A distinctive feature in a room can be singled out when you need to memorize a phone number of an organization if the names of staff or a doctor are of no interest to you.

Singling Out a Distinctive Feature in a Car

It is often necessary to memorize a car’s license plate number, for example, if you have witnessed a car accident, a hit-and-run, and want to provide information. All cars are similar; if you try to memorize the car’s license plate number separately, without connecting it to anything, you will not be able to do so dependably (the brain forgets the information, because no connection has been created).

Singling out a distinctive feature will allow you not only to connect a number to it, but also to remember the car make - and even the driver’s appearance.

Look inside the car and spot some gadget in it; drivers like to decorate their cars on the outside as well as on the inside.

Attention: False and Standard Distinctive Features

When you try to find a distinctive feature, try not to choose the ones that are hard to memorize. Try to note if a person is cross-eyed. If he has a golden tooth, big ears, a scar, sweaty hands, piercings, bad fingernails. A tattoo can be temporary and is not a secure distinctive feature.

Do not pay attention to clothes, haircut, and other external, changeable features; these are only masks - and some people wear these masks with only one goal: to avoid your attention or simply to get lost in a crowd.

An example of a false distinctive feature is a reversible coat (one that can be worn on both sides and has two different colors), or a bright cap that can be taken off.

An example of a standard distinctive feature is a short haircut, though if everyone was bald, it would be impossible to find the one you need.

Human behavior itself is an unreliable, distinctive feature. Many swindlers are talented actors; as Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage… and all the men and women merely players.”