Learning the 12 cranial nerves can be challenging so a good mnemonic can be a lifesaver
Learning the names of the 12 cranial nerves in sequence, with all of their muscle and gland innervations, as well as their associated functions can be quite a challenge. You can use your favorite acronym based approach , with the first letter of each word also corresponding with a cranial nerve, like the chart below but this approach can only take you so far. It’s limited and isn’t very powerful.
The innate power of our brain’s memorization capacity is largely left untapped. I put together this mnemonic story to help myself and others learn the 12 cranial nerves. It incorporates powerful techniques I learned mostly by listening to a great audio book on memorization.
The best part is that creating the story and learning it is actually pretty FUN. Well, I take it back… I guess the best part is that it STICKS really well in your brain and the mnemonic allows you hold a lot of details in an easy to remember, highly efficient, organizational framework.
Watch “The Sea Story” mnemonic in this video and you will easily remember the cranial nerves
This video might seem a little long at first but it sticks better the first time than watching other videos 10 times. I hope it helps. Good luck!
Using storytelling is a great way to use the 3 fundamental principles of memorization:
Here is “The Sea Story” cranial nerves mnemonic in written form
Before I start the story, let me give you a good suggestion. Although I’ve included images in this written form of the story to help create visual anchors, do not let your imagination get lazy. You want to imagine this story in your own mind as if you were there in the most vivid detail. You will be there seeing the sights, feeling the sensations, tasting the flavors, smelling the odors and experiencing the emotions, et cetera.
WARNING: This story is ridiculous and almost seems like a bizarre dream sequence. This is not by mistake, it is a key element to a good mnemonic story. The more ridiculous and shocking the better because you’ll remember it easier. If you can embellish the story and make it more outrageous, all the better. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll retain.
Feel free to change the story to make yours a better fit for you to remember. Fill it with as many extra details as you can to make it feel more real.
[For the first two nerves use your fingers as mnemonics, meaning cranial nerve I is using 1 finger to point to the 1 nose you have. Your olfactory nerve innervates the nasal cavity and allows you to have the perception of smell. ]
[Take your two fingers like a peace sign and point them at your eyes like Robert Deniro does to Ben Stiller in Meet the Fockers. Two fingers, two eyes; cranial nerve II. Enough said. Your optic nerve transmits visual information from your retina. It starts to get more difficult here on out.]
Suddenly you feel this surge of energy surging up from beneath the water. A huge splash of water erupts from the sea and there stands Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. He takes his trident and he starts terrorizing you with it by pointing it toward your face and moving it from side to side. Your eyes are rapidly moving from left to right as you fear for your life.
[You know this is the third cranial nerve because Poseidon is pointing his three-pronged trident at your face. The eye movement produced by watching the movement of his trident is accomplished by muscles in the eye innervated by the oculomotor nerve, the third cranial nerve. This nerve also innervates your pupillary sphincter that constricts your pupil, allowing you to visually focus on this threat. Think of your eyes being ocular and the motor movement involved in this scene.]
Poseidon has grown tired of torturing you with his trident shenanigans and now holds his hands out, palm up, at the level of the sea and then raises his hands violently into the air as if to summon the ocean to shoot upward. Sure enough, a huge column of water shoots into the sky and immediately by impulse your eyes dart up into the air. “What?! I can’t believe it!” you say as you see a sailboat sitting on top of this column of water. Inside the sail boat is Johnny Depp, it’s Captain Jack Sparrow! As you look up at him he grabs a paddle and starts rowing and singing, “Tro, tro, tro your boat,” just like the old song.
[When you see the sailboat in your mind you want to think of a boat with a triangular sail. This naturally resembles the number 4. Come to associate a sailboat with the number 4. So you know this is the fourth cranial nerve. What’s the name? Help recall this by remembering Jack Sparrow singing, “Tro, tro, tro your boat (gently down the stream)” and recall the trochlear nerve. This innervates the superior oblique muscle that allowed your eyes to glance upward toward the sky.]
Jack shoots a glance at Poseidon and gives a look like they have an old beef that needs to be handled. Jack jumps from his sailboat onto Poseidon’s eye. Poseidon is this huge sea god and so Captain Jack is just this little guy to Poseidon, the size of his eye ball. Poseidon can’t see and as if the sky were correlated to Posseidon’s own vision, the sky goes black. Out of the darkness comes a faint light that grows stronger. The star grows bright and draws closer. Jiminy Cricket is on the star singing, “When you wish upon a star…” and with him are 3 beautiful gemini women. Jiminy vanishes but the three beautiful geminis are now on your raft. They begin touching your face sensuously. One of the geminis has something in the fist of her hand and she says, “Here, eat this!” You say, “NO, I don’t know what that is,” as you clench your teeth shut.
[When you see the star you want to associate the number 5 with it. When you draw a star on a piece of paper you naturally draw a 5 pointed star. So this aspect of the sequence cues you to know this is the fifth cranial nerve. On the star along with Jiminy Cricket is 3 geminis which you associate with tri-geminal or the trigeminal nerve. The women are touching your face and you feel it. The trigeminal nerve allows for sensory perception of touch in the face and also innervates the teeth and muscles of mastication. Recall in the story that when offered a mystery item to eat, you refused and used your muscles of mastication to bite down and seal your mouth. You could feel the pressure against your teeth.]
[* Trigeminal Girls – If you don’t like the choice of female geminis, they can just as easily be male. Just remember, the more shocking the better. It will stick in your mind better.]
“Hello Poppets!” exclaims Jack Sparrow. Startled, your eyes rapidly shift to the side to look at what this character is up to. He’s holding a six pack of beer and his shirt’s torn up and you can see his abs. Holding up the beer with a devilish grin he says, “Now it’s a party!”
[The six pack of beer and perhaps even the six pack of abs are an easy symbol mnemonic alerting you that this is cranial nerve 6. When he first exclaimed, “Hello Poppets,” yourlateral rectus muscle in your eye allowed the rapid lateral movement of your eye to see what was the commotion. When you see Johnny Depp’s abs you also think abducens. His abs are your cue for abducens.]
One of the geminis grabs your attention and holds out her fist again and asks, “Are you sure you don’t want this?” You ask, “Well, what is it?” To which she replies, “A strawberry.” This whole time you weren’t sure what it was but now you know and reply, “Oh, of course I’d like a strawberry.” She gets a little too excited and rapidly shoves the strawberry towards your face. Your eyebrows dart up, your eyes get big, your mouth droops and you pull back, “Whoa! I want a strawberry but let’s take it easy here.” The gemini girl then feeds you the strawberry. It tastes so good your mouth begins to salivate. Before you know what’s happening the gemini is making out with you and it reminds of the game “7 in Heaven” which is an old game that teenagers play where they spin a bottle and get locked up with someone in a closet for 7 minutes and their supposed to make out. You think back to how this day started with Poseidon and his frightening trident and geysers of water; it was a nightmare. Somehow it has turned into this awesome experience with Jonny Depp and attractive women making out with you. You are so overwhelmed you tear up in joy, you even sniffle a little as your nose runs a bit.
[You will associate 7 with the idea of “7 in Heaven” and making out with one of the geminis. You need your facial muscles to be able to kiss and the facial nerve innervates the muscles of the face. You also used your facial muscles when the gemini tried to shove the strawberry in your face and you had a terrified and surprised expression. The strawberry made you salivate which corresponds to the facial nerve innervating the taste receptors of the anterior two-thirds of your tongue. The facial nerve also innervates the lacrimal gland and nasal mucosa that resulted in your crying and runny nose.]
“Follow me!” you hear Jack Sparrow say. When you turn around to look at him he’s sporting big sunglasses that look like the number 8 and he seems to have put on his favorite pirate vest. He’s thrown a rope from your little raft to his sailboat, except it’s not a sailboat anymore, its a multi-million dollar yacht! He walks across the tight rope to your raft to show its safe. He has a large conch shell in his hands and it looks like he has put holes in them so he can play it like a flute. He then begins walking the tightrope back to the yacht saying, “Follow me through the vestibule of my yacht,” as he plays a hypnotic melody on his fluted conch shell.
[So, as already stated, Jack’s sunglasses are a representation of the number 8 and cue you in on the correct number of cranial nerve associated here. Jack is wearing a vest and leading you through the vestibule of his yacht while playing his conch shell. The cochlea in the ear is named such because it is shaped like a shell. So you naturally draw vestibulocochlear from these cues. The innervation of the vestibulocochlear nerve through the ear region allows for balance (walking the tight rope) and hearing (hearing the acoustic properties of the conch shell being played).]
You are now safely aboard Captain Jack’s luxurious yacht when Mr. Sparrow shouts, “Look! Look! My pharynx is all glossy!” as he opens his mouth to show you. As he begins to tell you how he has this weird taste in the back of his mouth and his tonsils feel like a cat is in there shredding them to bits, an actual cat suddenly jumps out of his mouth. He lurches at the cat, “That’s the end of his 9 lives!”
[You will associate the number 9 with cats (having 9 lives) and think back to the cat jumping out of Jack Sparrow’s glossy pharynx. This immediately cues you to know this is cranial nerve number 9 and is the glossopharyngeal. It innervates the posterior one-third of the taste buds of the tongue, which accounts for Jack’s weird taste in the back of his mouth. It also innervates the tonsils (he felt like they were scratched to death by cat claws) and the parotid gland (which you will just have to remember or come up with an additional storyline).]
Before Jack can capture the cat he begins to convulse and his larynx, pharynx, trachea and esophagus start spasming, his lungs hyperventilate and he clutches his heart. He knows he going to die so he crosses his hands across his chest, preparing to die and says, “I always thought I’d die in Vegas!” Jack keels over and is dead.
[You’ll associate the number 10 with Jack’s 10 fingers on his hands that he has crossed over his chest preparing for his eminent death and you know its the vagus nerve because before he prepares for death he states he thought he’d die in Las Vegas. The muscles that the vagus nerve innervate are the ones spasming and causing distress during this scene.]
You can’t believe it… Jack Sparrow is dead! A feeling of disturbed astonishment begins filling you when you hear a faint snicker from behind you. It’s one of the geminis and she’s got this evil smile on her face as she pulls out a vile of poison marked with a skull and crossbones,”I poisoned him!” she smirks. “Why would you kill him! It’s Johnny Depp, Captain Jack Sparrow! He let us party on his yacht! Great! Am I an accessory to murder now?” Suddenly Jack sprouts wings and they stick straight up in the air like a field goal, looking like an 11.
[When you think of 11 you will think of Jack Sparrow’s upright angel wings. These wings sprout after Jack has been killed and you are worried you are an accessory to murder and so you realize this is the accessory nerve. It innervates the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles which are the muscles the wings are attached to.]
All of a sudden a brilliant light from the sky appears, the clouds part and a group of personages start descending. It’s the 12 disciples! (whether you’re religious or not should matter, it’s simply an easy association). One of the disciples booms in a large voice, “We are here to usher you into heaven, Captain. Are you ready?” He nods his head and off they float back into the brilliant light in the sky. As Jack Sparrow is ascending he looks back and glares at the gemini girl who poisoned him and sticks his tongue out, looks at all of and says, “Goodbye Poppets,” and then he’s gone.
[When you think of the number 12 you’ll think of the 12 disciples coming down from heaven to usher Jack Sparrow in. Remember Jack sticking his tongue out at the evil gemini. The hypoglossal nerve innervates the muscles of the tongue and allows for motor movement. I couldn’t come up with a clever way to help you remember “hypoglossal” but it’s fairly easy to remember with glossal meaning tongue. If you come with an idea please post it here to help!]