I had a great idea for today’s piece, but I forgot it. That annoyed me, because over the course of the last twenty years I’ve read a dozen memory books, from one of the earliest by the Yoda of memory training, Harry Lorayne — I forget its name, but it was from 1986 — to a bunch of recent ones for which I don’t even remember the authors’ names. I do remember where the books are…in a thousand-pound stack of other books in storage in my ex-wife’s family law firm in Tennessee. Which doesn’t help. Online would help, since I could look it up anywhere, anytime. Then I remembered I have a website. Much better storage than the basement of a southern law firm that I’ll never see again. So here goes, my collected reservoir of forgotten memory aids.
Work with the way your brain evolved — to find food, fight, flee, and fuck. Your brain did not evolve to remember pi to 65,536 digits of pi or memorize the rule against perpetuities. Hell, my spellcheck doesn’t seem even to remember what perpetuities are. We don’t do any of those nice F words in the abstract. We don’t do it in Latinate form — we eat, not ingest; box, not pugilate; fuck, not fornicate. We do it with our good juicy Germanic roots, not our Latinate leaves.
And we don’t do it with just one sense. If you want to remember something, make it multisensual. Most books on this stuff say there are three different ways of learning: visual (65% of the population), aural (30%) and kinaesthetic (5%), and it is important to know what type you are. But the truth is that all of us have some element — maybe weaker, maybe stronger — of our nondominant learning styles. If you want to remember a new word, a formula, whatever, write it down and say it aloud. The writing is both visual (seeing it) and kinaesthetic (the movement of the writing), and using all three systems will layer the new knowledge within a more areas of your brain, making retrieval easier. (Forgetting is nearly always a retrieval problem. The memory is there, but it’s inaccessible.) If you want to remember a lion, because, say, you have 52 cards (see below), don’t just picture Disney’s Lion King. Imagine the lion roaring, slashing at you, ripping a chunk of flesh out of your thigh, its dirty beige-yellow fur stinking of wet cat, a few of its hairs ending up in your mouth even as it’s crunching through your femur. Then you’ll remember the lion.
Method of Loci / Roman Room / Journey Method
Although the simplest way of remembering things is simply to link them — visualizing talking on your keys like a telephone in order to remember placing them beside the telephone — there’s a limit to the usefulness of simple links. If you want to remember a long list, and especially if you want to remember it in a particular order, then it’s helpful to peg each item somehow. The oldest (first documented use by Simonides of Ceos, Greek lyric poet 556 BC — 486 BC), and in my opinion easiest, is to Method of Loci. Again, it works because it links visual memories to something the brain has a deep evolutionary history in giving priority to: landmarks on a well-known journey.
(The hippocampus controls both our ability to navigate and to form and recollect memories, and there’s evidence that our entire linguistic ability as a species grew out of our brains’ ability to navigate as our monkey grandfathers swung from branch to branch — one of the reasons that teaching a very young baby to crawl early improves that baby’s adult linguistic abilities. But that’s a whole different topic…)
The journey can be your route to work in the morning, a path from your front door to your bedroom, or any other trip through physical space that you regularly perform. You have to invest a bit of time in selecting the landmarks and ensuring you remember them clearly and visually, so that they’re ready when you need to hang a visual memory on them. They become stops on a route. When choosing to remember something, you walk along the route mentally and deposit each item at each stop. Then, when trying to recall the list, you simply walk the route and pick up each visual at each landmark.
A variant of this, often called the Roman Room, is to do the same thing with a room you know well. A room has six walls (including floor and ceiling) and six corners, for a convenient total of ten pegs per room. Start at the entrance of your chosen room. I’ll use my parents living room as an example, and assume that when I enter the room I’m facing North. If I look clockwise, I start with the south-west corner, which, conveniently, has a medieval sword hanging in it. I say convenient because the sword is shaped like a 1, making it a perfect peg for the first landmark on my list. The west wall has a painting of flowers, which will be landmark #2; the north-west corner had a Christmas tree last time I saw the room (when I froze it in memory for future use as a Roman Room), which will be #3, the north wall has a fireplace (#4), north-east corner a TV (#5), east wall a door (#6) to the sunroom, south-east corner a lamp (#7), south wall a mirror (#8), on the floor is a low coffee table (#9) and from the ceiling hangs a fan (#10).
Now any time I want to remember a shopping list, the first ten items get hung around my parents living room. The milk gets impaled by the sword, spurting on me and making me wet; the bacon oozes out of my mom’s flower painting; chicken legs jump around their Christmas tree; little broccoli people dance around their fireplace; and so on. I like having a couple of rooms free in my head for transient lists like this. If you’re studying or want to remember some list of ten items permanently, it’s better to pick a dedicated room, and then create some association of the room with the subject matter you’re remembering.
Numbers: The Major System
Numbers are abstract, and thus hard to remember. There are several ways to convert numbers into concrete images, either by their shape (so a 1 is a candle, a 2 a swan, etc) or by what they rhyme with, but the best and most expandable is the Major System. This system requires a bit more of an initial investment to convert the digits 0 to 9 into consonant sounds which are then used to create words, but that takes 15 minutes to memorize. With practice, this becomes a powerful life tool.
Each numeral is associated with one or more consonants. Vowels and the consonants w, h and y are ignored. These can be used as fillers to make sensible words from the resulting consonant sequences. The most popular sequence is:
|0||s, z, soft c||“z” is the first letter of zero. The other letters have a similar sound.|
|1||d, t||d & t have one downstroke and sound similar|
|2||n||n has two downstrokes|
|3||m||M has three downstrokes and looks like a “3” on its side|
|4||r||last letter of four, also 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other|
|5||l||L is the Roman Numeral for 50|
|6||j, sh, soft “ch”, dg, zh, soft “g”||a script j has a lower loop / g is almost a 6 flipped over|
|7||k, hard c, hard g, hard “ch”, q, qu||capital K “contains” two sevens|
|8||f, v||script f resembles a figure-8. V sounds similar, and you can think of a V8 motor|
|9||b, p||p is a mirror-image 9. b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around|
|Unassigned||Vowel sounds, w,h,y||These can be used anywhere without changing a word’s number value|
Each numeral maps to a set of similar sounds with similar mouth and tongue positions. The link is phonetic, that is to say, it is the consonant sounds that matter, not the spelling. Therefore a word like action would encode the number 762 (k-ch-n), not 712 (k-t-n); and ghost would be 701 (g-z-t), while, because the gh in enough is pronounced like an f, the word enough encodes the number 28 (n-f). Similarly, double letters are disregarded. The word missile is mapped to 305 (m-z-l), not 3005 (m-z-z-l). To encode 3005 one would use something like mossy sail. Often the mapping is compact. Hindquarters, for example, translates unambiguously to 2174140 (n-d-qu-r-t-r-z), which amounts to 7 digits encoded by 8 letters, and can be easily visualized.
For most people it would be easier to remember 3.1415927 (pi) as
|MeTeoR (314) TaiL (15) PiNK (927)|
Short term visual memory of imagined scenes allows large numbers of digits to be memorized with ease, though only usually for a short time.
The system can be used for phone numbers. Make up multiple words, preferably a sentence, or an ordered sequence of images featuring the owner of the number. A friend who owns a coffee shop, for example, just happens to have a phone number that translates as coffee plen(t)iful. Obviously, a certain degree of repetition and concentration using ordinary memory is still required, but this system makes numbers far easier.
You can download the freeware 2Know from here to have your computer automatically translate numbers into a set of words based on the Major System.
With 0-9 memorized, you can encode and remember any number. Particularly with the aid of a computer, it doesn’t take much work to encode every phone number in your contacts into sets of visuals which you then associate with the owner of the phone number. Not only are you thus freeing yourself from dependence on your Blackberry, but you’re giving a quick workout to both your memory and imagination muscles. And have no doubt, just like a regular muscle these function an the principle of use it or lose it.
If you plan on becoming a memory expert, however, it’s useful to memorize a list of the first 100 up front. This prevents wasting large amounts of time searching for appropriate word-translations while trying to remember longer numbers. Also, once these are strongly lodged in your memory, the numbers themselves can become pegs for items on a list, replacing or complementing the Method of Loci.
Here’s a sample list:
0. Saw 20. Nose 40. Rose 60. Cheese 80. Fez 00. S.O.S.
1. Hat 21. Net 41. Road 61. Sheet 81. Fat 01. Seed
2. Neigh 22. Nun 42. Rain 62. Chain 82. Fan 02. Sun
3. Ma 23. Nemo 43. Room 63. Jam 83. Foam 03. Sam
4. Ray 24. Nero 44. Aurora 64. Cherry 84. Fire 04. Zero
5. Law 25. Nail 45. Rail 65. Jello 85. File 05. Seal
6. Shoe 26. Notch 46. Rash 66. Judge 86. Fish 06. Sash
7. Key 27. Neck 47. Rock 67. Chalk 87. Fog 07. Sack
8. Ivy 28. Knife 48. Roof 68. Chef 88. Fife 08. Sofa
9. Bee 29. Knob 49. Rope 69. Ship 89. Fib 09. Sepia
10. Toes 30. Mouse 50. Lace 70. Gas 90. Bus
11. Dad 31. Mat 51. Lada 71. Cat 91. Bat
12. Dune 32. Moon 52. Lion 72. Can 92. Pen
13. Dime 33. Mummy 53. Lime 73. Comb 93. Opium
14. Tire 34. Mower 54. Lure 74. Car 94. Bear
15. Doll 35. Mule 55. Lily 75. Coal 95. Bell
16. Tissue 36. Match 56. Leech 76. Cage 96. Bush
17. Duck 37. Mug 57. Log 77. Coke 97. Book
18. Dove 38. Movie 58. Lava 78. Cave 98. Beef
19. Tape 39. Map 59. Lip 79. Cape 99. Pipe
For higher numbers, you can either work with the phonetic system to create longer words or attach multiple images to each other. Another approach, however, is to use memory enhancers. For example, if 52 is a lion, then 152 could be either a talon or an Italian, but you could also decide that a frozen lion is 152, if you’ve created a rule for yourself that putting the image on ice adds one hundred to it.
Here are some options:
|Simple Peg System 0 – 9||Major System 00 – 99|
|1. Frozen in ice||10-19||100 – 199|
|2. Covered in thick oil||20-29||200 – 299|
|3. In flames||30-39||300 – 399|
|4. Pulsating Violently||40-49||400 – 499|
|5. Made of Velvet||50-59||500 – 599|
|6. Completely transparent||60-69||600 – 699|
|7. Smelling good||70-79||700 – 799|
|8. In a busy road||80-89||800 – 899|
|9. Floating on a cloud||90-99||900 – 999|
Alternatively, you can use colours for the same effect, or even as further multiple enhancers. Thus making the whole image red could add a thousand. So a red pulsing lion would be 1452. But because at some point multiple enhancers start to break down, I prefer that 1452 be waterline, or drooling (with the g silent), or even a lion swinging from a tire swing, underneath it (tire codes as 14 and lion as 52, but using two separate words creates the risk of reversing the order).
|Simple Peg System 0 – 9 second expansion||Major System 00 – 99, second expansion|
|1. Frozen in ice||100-19||1000 – 1999|
|2. Covered in thick oil||200-29||2000 – 2999|
|3. In flames||300-39||3000 – 3999|
|4. Pulsating Violently||400-49||4000 – 4999|
|5. Made of Velvet||500-59||5000 – 5999|
|6. Completely transparent||600-69||6000 – 6999|
|7. Smelling good||700-79||7000 – 7999|
|8. In a busy road||800-89||8000 – 8999|
|9. Floating on a cloud||900-99||9000 – 9999|
Say you want to memorize the calendar, either because your life revolves around dates, because you want to exercise your memory, or just to play Rain Man. Here’s the algorithm:
[day of week] = (yearcode + monthcode + day) mod 7
Mod 7 is just the remainder after you divide by 7. 18 mod 7 would be 4. (The closest multiple of 7 is 14, and 18 minus 14 = 4.)
Month and Year Codes
The month and year codes are random, and have to be memorized. Ugh. I’ll give some mnemonics later:
- January: 1
- February: 4
- March: 4
- April: 0
- May: 2
- June: 5
- July: 0
- August: 3
- September: 6
- October: 1
- November: 4
- December: 6
Here are the most useful year codes:
- 2008: 2
- 2009: 3
- 2010: 4
- 2011: 5
- 2012: 0
- 2013: 1
Days of the Week
The result is always a number from 0 to 6, and these actually make sense:
- 1: Sunday; 1st day of week
- 2: Monday; 2nd day of week
- 3: Tuesday; etc
- 4: Wednesday
- 5: Thursday
- 6: Friday
- 0: Saturday
Let me show you how the formula works with an example: December 25, 2010.
Step 1: Get the codes for month and year. According to the code tables, December is 6 and 2010 is 4.
Step 2: Insert into formula:
- [day of week] = (yearcode + monthcode + day) mod 7
- [day of week] = (4 + 6 + 25) mod 7
- [day of week] = 35 mod 7
- [day of week] = 0
0 means Saturday. That’s the day of the week for December 25, 2010.
For speeding up the mod calculation, you can also cast out sevens as you go. Repeating 25 December 2010
- [day of week] = (4 + 6 + 25); let’s cast out sevens for 25 before we go.
- [day of week] = (4 + 6 + 4);
- [day of week] = (10 + 4); let’s cast out sevens for 8 before we go
- [day of week] = (3 + 4);
- [day of week] = 7
- [day of week] = 0 (Saturday)
Although there are extra steps, you will always work with small numbers, speeding up the process.
Adjustment for Leap Years
The only wrench in the system is leap years: during leap years you need to subtract one from the result – from the last number you calculate — for the months of January and February. The other months are calculated just as any normal year.
Memorizing the Month Codes
To help memorize the month codes, you can create a peg system. Months are something we refer to frequently anyway, it’s useful to have extant image-pegs for them. Here are some possibilities:
- January: Jacket
- February: Freezie / Valentine’s Day
- March: March / Spring Break
- April: Bunny / Easter Egg
- May: Soviet May Day parade (or Flowers)
- June: Dune
- July: Julius Caesar / Jungle
- August: My friend Octavian / Barbecue
- September: Scepter
- October: Hallowe’en / Doberman
- November: Turkey
- December: Santa Claus
Choose whatever works for you. If your religion or tradition means you jump up and down on one leg for the whole month of June, then replace Dune with a one-legged man as your peg. This is a personal system.
The next step is to either create an association with the numbers in the Major System, or to pick a Roman Room / Journey with 12 locations onto which to hang each item. If there were ten months, I’d go with the Roman Room, but given that it’s 12, I’ll choose the Major System. Since January is 1, I need to associate a hat and a jacket. There’s a risk of this being far too boring to be memorable, so I’ll visualize a hat struggling to put on a winter jacket, to push its rims through the arms, etc., rather than simply seeing a hat floating on top of a jacket. February is a Freezie, so I’ll see a manta ray sucking on a frozen freezie, and so on. Again, once you’ve memorized the month codes, the calculation is easy, since you’re only likely to be calculating days of the week for your current year.
Expanding the formula to any year:
You can calculate the year code in one of two ways. The formula, below, or by picking up a calendar and filling in every variable other than the year code into the above formula, then solving for the year code. Or you can calculate it the long way:
yearcode = (centurycode + [last two digits of year] + ([last two digits of year] div 4)) mod 7
‘Div’ is the operator for integer division. Just like ‘mod’ gets the remainder of a division, ‘div’ gets its integer quotient. For example, 17 div 7 = 2 (with a remainder of 3).
The century code follows a recurring pattern of 6-4-2-0, and can be used for any date in the Gregorian calendar:
- 1600s: 6
- 1700s: 4
- 1800s: 2
- 1900s: 0
- 2000s: 6; repeating the pattern
- 2100s: 4; 6-4-2-0 pattern goes on…
Finally, to conclude on a more philosophical note, don’t forget that sometimes it’s important to remember to forget. Especially if you’re in a relationship.