I Have a Super-Power Memory
This is an expanded version of a presentation I gave on memory. Entire books have been written on these topics. This is just a sampler to get you familiar with the ideas and provide a groundwork for you to supplement with your own research. If you enjoy this, Buy me a coffee.
I have a few hobbies I rotate through. One of them is memory techniques. I did magic when I was a kid, and I always loved the memory sections of mentalism books. I remember using these techniques in high school to memorize details of the first 20 elements of the periodic table for a chemistry test.
These techniques are easy. I started teaching them to my daughter when she was 5. I don’t use them to memorize long sequences of digits or multiple decks of cards, although it can be used for that. Mostly I use them to make my life a little bit easier. I remember grocery lists, seat numbers, addresses, directions, PINs and passwords.
You Can Have A Super-Power Memory
The basic strategy for remembering something is taking the thing you want to remember, encoding it in a way you can visualize, and linking it to something you know.
When you want to recall it, you think of the thing you know (which should be easy, because you know it) and the link brings you the image of what it was you wanted to remember.
The encoding and linking steps require actually paying attention to what it is you want to remember. Frequently when you don’t remember something it’s because you didn’t pay enough attention to it in the first place. You’re distracted with other goings on. You’re skimming but not actually taking the time to focus. By forcing yourself to pay attention, you’re much more likely to remember it even if the techniques didn’t actually work.
But of course the techniques do work, and they’re thousands of years old. The oldest surviving written memory text is more than 2000 years old and nothing has changed. Everything in it, the techniques and the tips, are still used today. The techniques themselves are older than that; we have evidence that non-literate cultures did and do all these things too. This is how knowledge was preserved and transferred before books and writing were commonplace.
You should actually try to use each of these techniques to memorize a list of items just so you can see how simple and effective they are. Don’t just read this article. Take some time to try them out. You can use a list of random words, but it will be more helpful to use it with something meaningful to you. Pick 20 years of Oscar winners, or the entries on the IMDB Top 250, or your company values, or a list of books on your bookshelf, or maybe this week’s grocery list.
We’ll look at each of the above stages: encoding, linking, and “something you know”.
If what you want to remember is something nice and concrete, then the encoding stage can be easy. If it’s your grocery list, for example, you can picture apples, butter, milk, bananas, and chicken. These are nice, concrete images. If it’s a task you’re trying to remember, then pick something that will remind you of the task. Mailing a letter, picture a mailbox. Pick up your dry cleaning, picture a suit on a hanger. Call the dentist, picture a giant tooth or a toothbrush. Your “true” memory will make the link from the “hint” (the image) back to what the actual task is.
Abstract ideas can be more tricky. You have to find a way to turn them into a picture. “Anger” might be hard, but you can picture an angry *person*. Justice is abstract, but you can picture a judge with a wig and a black robe banging a gavel. Or the woman with the blindfold holding the scales. You need to turn the idea into something visual that you can manipulate in your mind’s eye.
Sometimes you’ll need to get more creative. Let’s say you’re trying to remember directions. Left and right are pretty abstract and hard to picture distinctly from each other. A giant arrow pointing one way is pretty similar to an arrow pointing the other way. But rabbits and lobsters are easy to picture. “Turn left at the gas station” might be hard to remember, but a lobster trying to use its claws to pump gas is not.
If I needed to remember that my seat is “27C”, I picture a cow on a cell phone. Cow for “C”, and the cell phone to me means “Nokia” which is “27”. (I’ll explain where this mapping comes from when I talk about encoding numbers.) For times, :15 is a 25-cent coin, :30 is a half of a grapefruit, :45 is a Pacman. Whatever you want to remember you have to create a picture for.
Sometimes there is no obvious equivalent for a word. Maybe it’s a name, or something in a foreign language. The solution is to break it down into syllables and make an image from those. For example, if you needed to remember the Canadian province of Manitoba, you could split it up into “man” and “tuba”, and picture an old man playing a tuba. I’m saying “old man” here to make it a more interesting picture to remember. It could be so heavy he’s having trouble picking it up, so it’s resting on the floor and he’s leaning over trying to blow in.
These are all different examples of encoding: visualizing an abstract idea by finding a mapping between it and something concrete.
The next step is linking: taking two or more things and creating a picture in your mind that combines them in a funny, surprising, disgusting, violent way.
This is how you connect the thing you want to remember to the thing you already know. That way, when you think of the thing you know, you’ll be reminded of the thing you wanted to remember.
You must actually see the picture you create. It must be vivid, in full colour, with lots of action and details. The vivid part is vital. Let’s say we want to want to link “monkey” and “orange”. It’s not enough to just think. “Ok, the monkey was peeling the orange”. That’s a boring image. Exaggerate the scale. Make it a huge orange. Or exaggerate the number. Make it millions of oranges. The monkey is diving into a ball pit filled with oranges. Make them interact. Exaggerate the action. It’s not peeling an orange, it’s throwing them at airplanes. Imagine King Kong climbing up, throwing oranges at airplanes and they’re hitting into the propellers to make orange juice that’s raining down. Close your eyes and really see the picture. Involve your senses. How does the sticky monkey fur feel? What is it doing with the peels? How is the monkey reacting? Involve your emotions. How does witnessing this scene make you feel? Sad? Amused? Grossed out? Actually feel that emotional response. All these will make it easier to reconstruct the image, and so remember what the items were.
There are lots of way to combine items. You can create images where A is being used instead of B or being made of B. If you needed to link “orange” and “candle”, you could picture peeling an orange and taking a bite, but it’s actually a wax candle inside complete with a burnt wick. Or peeling an orange and stacking the peel up on the orange like a candle and trying to light it for a romantic orange-lit dinner.
You don’t need to tell anybody your images. You can make them as obscene as you’d like.
You can use the linking method to remember a list. Just link together the first two items in the list, then make another image linking the second and the third, and so on. In this case the “something you know” is the previous item in the chain. I find this easier and faster than the story method, where you come up with a small story that incorporates all the items on the list. It’s just a set of unrelated images. Monkey links to orange. Orange links to candle. Candle links to dentist. It’s also easier to traverse the list backwards when linking than trying to tell the story in reverse: Dentist linked to candle, candle linked to orange.
Something You Know: Pegs
The last thing you need is “something you know”. These are called “pegs”, but instead of hanging your coat on them we’re going to be hanging memories. Pegs can be anything that you remember without having to think about it. This lets you link the something you want to remember to a peg, then want to remember it, you think of peg (this is easy because you know it) and your link will remind you of the item.
Here’s a set of rhyming pegs that you probably already know and can start using right away.
One — sun
Two — shoe
Three — tree
Four — door
Five — hive
Six — sticks
Seven — heaven
Eight — gate
Nine — wine
Ten — hen
When you want to remember a list of 10 items, link the thing you want to remember to one of the pegs. Going back to our list with the monkey, we would start with linking “monkey” and “sun”, since “sun” is our rhyming peg for “one”. Maybe the monkey is trying to get a sun tan, and is rubbing sun cream into its fur. Stuffing your toes into your shoe they squash up against orange slices making your socks wet and sticky. A tree filled with candles growing on it as the peasants arrive with their baskets for the traditional candle harvest.
To recall the items, go through the pegs: One, rhymes with sun, links to monkey. Two, rhymes with shoe, links to orange.
Remembering a list with pegs is more useful than linking the items together in a list. If you forget one item on a peg, you can still remember all the others. But forgetting a single link in a list breaks the chain completely. It also makes it easier to remember jump around the list. What was item 4? The item linked to “door”. Note that it’s easier to insert an item into a linked list than with pegs. This is the exact same trade-off as in computer science.
You’re not limited to only storing a single item on a peg. Each item could be a complex image linking several ideas, or the first link in another list.
You can mark items as “done” by destroying the image somehow. Set the monkey on fire, break the candle. They will stand out when you skim through your list.
What do you want to do if you want to remember more than 10 things? You create another peg list.
Here’s another peg system for numbers, where the pictures match the shape of the digit.
3 handcuffs / heart / bra / moustache
5 hook+pulley / unicycle / curling rock
6 golf club
7 boomerang / scythe / ikea lamp
8 snowman / hourglass
9 balloon / elephant trunk
0 pancake / donut / frisbee
You can also create alphabet peg lists with different themes:
For example, animals:
Anteater / Bee / Cow / Dog / Elephant / Frog / Goat / Hippo / …
Apple / Banana / Corn / Dumpling / Egg / Fudge / Gravy / Honey / …
Pick whatever topic you like as long as you can fill the entire alphabet and make sure the images are all easy for you to visualize.
Some people use peg lists that are parts of their bodies: on top of head, ears, eyes, nose, all the way down to toes. You can probably get 15 items there.
Peg lists are great. There are lots of them out there. The problem is you have to keep coming up with them. And it’s sometimes hard to remember all the different peg lists. But there is another system that you can use to provide you with as many pegs as you need.
Something You Know: Memory Palaces
There are lots of names for this system: memory palace, mind palace, Roman room, method of loci. Sherlock Holmes has one. So does Hannibal Lecter. But these don’t just exist in fiction. They’re totally real and they totally work.
Close your eyes. Think of someplace familiar. Humans have excellent spatial memories, so this should be easy. A room in your house. A classroom. A park. A Favourite restaurant or cafe. The house where you grew up. Even a level of a video game, as long as you’re confident you know it inside out. Anywhere.
If you have to think too much about the space then you’ll have to spend mental energy on remembering your palace and that’s less to spend on remembering the items in it. Choose someplace you can already easily picture and navigate through in your imagination.
Pick a path through the space. Whatever makes sense to you, and to the location. You’ll need to follow this path every time through because that preserves the order of the items in the list. I generally go clockwise around the room, starting with something on my left as I walk in. I select locations left to right, top to bottom and further away to closer. Having a defined ordering helps me ensure I follow the same path if it has been a while since I used that particular route. It also helps reduce thinking when I’m creating it the first time.
Don’t trap yourself in a dead end or backtrack. Don’t cross your path. This keeps following the path smoother.
Maybe you’ll be standing in the doorway looking at everything, scanning. Maybe you’ll be travelling through. I do both, depending on what the space is. Rooms I tend to have a more-or-less fixed viewpoint. Some larger outdoor journeys I glide through.
When you’re creating your space, you can walk through your space in person, but it’s better to just do it in your mind. That way you’ll focus on the things that are important to you that you’ve *already* internalized, and temporary items (like a sock on the floor) won’t be considered for items.
Pick out 5 features. Pieces of furniture are good. Chairs, coffee tables, windows, bookshelves, lamps, cupboards. Things don’t move. Permanent fixtures in the room. Things that you can interact with. They should be different from each other because otherwise they’ll be hard to tell apart. They should be well spaced so they’re not too crowded together. Choosing items at different heights can help. As with selecting the palace, the path and items should be easy, obvious, and very familiar.
These items are the pegs that you will link images to.
Expand the journey through 5 rooms in your house with 5 things each. There’s 25 memorable pegs. 5 items in a room is low, actually, but it’s a good starting point. My rooms are more crowded. I put usually 10 or 15 pegs in a room. My most crowded ones have ~30. I have one in my kitchen, for example, that has fridge, freezer, inside various shelves of cupboards, cutting boards, stove-top, oven, dishwasher, sink, under sink, dish rack, garbage and recycling and so-on.
You’ll need to be able to walk through your locations confidently, in the correct order, both forwards and backwards. You don’t want to have to think about what the next peg is. You don’t want to miss a location, or visit them in the wrong order. Practice walking through it until you’re comfortable.
Some journeys will have entire rooms as stages, some will have many details in a room as stages. It all depends on how familiar you are with the spaces. My kitchen I know well and there are lots of nooks and crannies.
Journeys don’t have to be inside. A walk around the neighborhood can be a journey, with particular hedges, lamp posts, shops, porches, mailboxes, benches, crosswalks, and fountains as stages.
If you have a long list you might want to be able to jump to the 10th, or 20th item. Knowing you have 10 items per room just means start at the second room. The oldest surviving written memory text “Ad Herennium” suggests adding items to mark different spots. For example, a Golden Hand placed at location 5, or a friend named Decimus at 10.
You can also use each location as the start of its own linked list, with the main image being the central point with smaller details chained to it.
Before I start to memorize something, I figure out approximately how many items there are on it, and pick an appropriate journey. If I need more than one “room”, I figure out which ones I’m going to use. I close my eyes and run through the stages quickly so I know where I’m going to put each item. I make sure to rotate through the rooms in my house for grocery lists. This means I don’t have interference and by the time I reuse one the old items have faded away.
Memory palaces like this are incredibly useful. The have been used for thousands of years. If you want to remember the main points of a long speech, just put images representing the main points along the a journey. The phrase “In the first place” comes “In the first place in my memory palace”. When I gave this talk, the images I had in my memory palace for the first section on encoding were: a grocery list, an angry face, a lobster claw, a cow on a cell phone eating a grapefruit, and a man playing the tuba. This was enough to remind of the different points I wanted to cover.
It’s easy to use memory palaces to store categorized or hierarchical information: use a set of buildings, which are already grouped and hierarchical by default. Speeches might have less pull, but sales information or product information might be useful. Have one room for product A, another room for product B. You don’t need to remember a place you’ve been perfectly down to every tiny detail. As long as your mental model of it is consistent, that’s enough to use for memorizing.
Much like destroying items to mark them as done on a peg list, you can mark an room of section as done by setting it on fire or otherwise destroying the room. That makes it obvious when walking through the section has been dealt with.
Connect journeys into larger ones, to create a huge palace you can walk around in. Not restricted to physical limitations. Add a door that takes you somewhere else. I have journeys where an existing staircase in Amsterdam takes me to a door (non-existent) that opens into an apartment in San Francisco. You can create your own video game hub level where you attach doors that lead to other places.
Personally, I find it’s just fun to walk around these when I’m bored or trying calm my mind or fall asleep.
To help train yourself to create memory palaces, you can think back through your day and try to walk through all the places you’ve been. You can pretend to be a spy while you’re there, capturing as many details as possible to turn into locations. Make sure to memorize them without any people there — they’re just distractions. Even if even you don’t keep it as a long term memory palace, it’s a good exercise.
I have a number of journeys. They’re all mostly from places in Amsterdam, although I have started to create some here. I also have some permanent journeys for things I want to remember longer term. I have one that gives me 120 digits of Pi. This is totally useless, except that I find walking through it backwards a good way to calm my brain when I’m falling asleep is. I also have one for my credit card: it’s a bank in Amsterdam. Among the ATMs and the teller counters are images that remind me of the number, the CVC code, expiry date, and pin. 28 digits in all.
This brings me to my final topic: numbers.
How do you memorize numbers? These are entirely abstract. Like playing cards, they have no intrinsic meaning. Nothing to picture or to manipulate. If you picture a giant digit “two”, or “27”, it’s easy to get it confused with a “12” or a “37”. How do you make these concrete, and distinct.
The point of this is not to memorize long strings of digits, although you can. I mostly use this to remember smaller numbers. PIN codes. Model numbers. Prices. IP addresses. Seat numbers.
Part numbers at the hardware store. Aisle number at IKEA. Bin numbers in the bulk section of the grocery store. Passports. Parking lot locations. Dewey call numbers at the library. Your kid’s shoe size. Numbers are everywhere.
I’m going to talk about the system I use. I’ve tried a few others, and this is what works for me. You will need to find the one that works for you.
The system is called the 2-digit Major system. I won’t bore you with the history other to note that it’s hundreds of years old.
We will assign each digit a consonant sound:
0 — s, z, soft ‘c’
1 — t, d
2 — n
4 — r
5 — l
6 — sh, j, ch, soft ‘g’
7 — hard ‘c’, k, hard ‘g’
8 — f, v
9 — p, b
If you’ve studied phonetics you’ll notice that there are voiced/unvoiced pairs here. S is unvoiced, Z is voiced.
W, H, and Y aren’t assigned digits.
The mapping between letters and numbers is arbitrary, but the advantage of using this one is that this is the “standard” one that will allow you to use other lists and sites you find online.
Remembering the number/letter pairs is the only thing you need to just learn. The Wikipedia page for the Major System has mnemonics for the pairs, but I don’t know if these would be helpful. I learned the basic letter mappings so long ago I don’t know what “tricks” I used. My advice is to just drill it.
To remember a number, you turn the digits into letters, and then add vowels until you have a word you can picture. So, “86” is “f-sh”: fish. If you want to remember the number “127”, “TNK”, you could think of a tank. “0947” is “SBRG”: iceberg. 9495 84 1470 can be encoded as “Purple Firetrucks”.
I mentioned it’s the sound that’s important, not the spelling. For example, “knock” is “n-k”, or 2–7, because the first “k” is silent. Cough is “7–8” because the “g” (the “gh”) is an F sound. “Towel” is “15”, because the W sound isn’t part of the system, so there’s just T and L.
Figuring out how to split up the digits into words and which vowels to add to make a good image takes time. It’s fine for things you want to store longer term. There are websites and wordlists to help with this.
To make this system faster for everyday use, I have a standard picture I use for each of the 2-digit numbers. 00 is “ss”, which is “see-saw”. 42 is “r-n”, rain. 98 is “p-f”, a puff a smoke. I have a hundred of these.
To remember a sequence of digits like my credit card, I turn each two digits into a picture and combine two of them into a single image, and then I put that image in a location in a memory palace. I always construct the images so that I know which digits come first. For me, top to bottom, left to right, actor-object. Again, it doesn’t matter what you choose as long as you’re always consistent and when you see the image you can pick it apart again. I find two images is a good fit. Trying to stuff three images can get muddled sometimes.
If I have one digit left over (because the number has an odd number of digits) then I use a number shape peg.
Getting a 2-digit major system takes work. There’s a couple issues. First, you need to get pictures that resonate with you. Ones that you can picture. It took me a while to settle down all my numbers. Having to make sure no conflicts with other images. For example, I knew I wanted the alphabet peg list, so I had to make sure I didn’t have things twice. I knew I didn’t want any disconnected body parts. “20 for Nose”, “27 Neck”, “81 Foot” were out, so I had to come up with words for those. You’ll find lists online, but I don’t necessarily recommend taking one of them wholesale. Take the time to think about the words and the images and feel free to come up with something that works better for you. This is one person’s list, but by definition they’re very personal.
And once you have to words, you need to be able to get to them quickly. This is just practice. No joke, I put them in a flash card app on my phone. Any pair of numbers I saw I would translate, and numbers are everywhere. If I saw a car packed outside an address, I’d practice making a link between the address numbers and the plate numbers. I wouldn’t try to memorize them long term, but just to practice going through the steps. I actually enjoyed this phase, as it was fun to keep picturing all these bizarre combinations of items.
Another popular system is the Dominic System, which turns pairs of numbers into people. I won’t cover it here, but many people prefer it as they find people more memorable than objects. That wasn’t the case for me, which is why the items in my system are all things.
As I mentioned, I use two images per location. You could also use only 1, or even 3, as long as you can reconstruct the order. There’s another very common system that handles ordering for you. It was popularized by Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein
Person-Action (PA) or Person-Action-Object (PAO) groups numbers in sets of four (PA) or six (PAO). Every two digit pair is associated with a person and their action, or a person with both an action and an object. Each action must be unique, and it helps if it’s easy to associate with the person. I’m going to use the Dominic System for the this example, which translates digits into initials. The number 15 maps to AE, which we’ll turn into Albert Einstein. We then choose an appropriate action: in this case, “writing on a blackboard. For “72” (GB) we’ll use George Bush and have him waving an American flag.
To encode a number with PA, you use the first two digit to find a person and the next two digits to select an action. In our case, we would encode 1572 as “Albert Einstein waving an American flag.” If our picture was “George Bush writing on a blackboard”, then we’d decode that into the person GB=72, performing the action of AE=15: 7215.
PAO is similar but with an object added into the mix for one million distinct images: 721511 becomes “George Bush writing on a blackboard with a tennis racket”. In this example, the tennis racket comes from Andre Agassi, AA=11.
People like this system because of its high information density (6 digits per location) and you “automatically” get silly images that preserve digit order.
I have a spreadsheet with all my memory palaces listed, as well as all my different peg systems. This includes the extra visualizations like the lobster/rabbit for left/right, grapefruit for times, and some others. This sounds strange, but don’t feel bad about writing down the things you want to remember.
Everybody wants to know how to remember people’s names. I’m not going to cover this in detail. The basic idea is to attach an image of their name (Steve = “Stove”, Ashley = “Ash tray”) to some feature that stands out on their face. Everybody has something you can use. This also requires that you actually pay attention what their name is in the first place. Most of the time you’re too busy thinking of the next thing you’re going to say and the introduction phase is just a ritual that happens on autopilot. You can practice this by using names from photograph captions in newspapers and magazines.
Memorizing a deck of cards is basically a party trick. It’s excellent training to use your memory palace and create images, but doesn’t have any practical application. The underlying idea is the same: you need to turn an abstract card into a concrete thing you can use. One way is to use reuse the major system pegs. Spades are 1–13. Hearts are 21–33. Or create a new set of pegs with the first letter representing the suit, and the second letter from the major system, finally using rhymes for the face cards. The Dominic System has its own mapping from cards to people. Another system is based on visual shapes. The ace of spades is an airplane taking off. The two of clubs is a swan eating some clover. 2 shape, clover clubs. As with everything else, the images are combined and placed into a memory palace which you walk back through to recover the order.
Having a super-power memory isn’t hard. The techniques are simple and effective. Yes, it takes a bit of work to get used to, but so does everything else in life. And even if you just shove everything in Evernote, memorizing a deck of cards is still a cool party trick.
This was a lot to digest. Please reach out if you have any questions.