I’m sure you’ve had the embarrassing experience of asking someone who’s already told you their name twice:

“I’m terribly sorry, but your name again? … Was it, Sally?”
“Denise.”
“Fuck!”

Or perhaps you were studying something that you had to memorize, and yet no matter how many times you poured over the data, it just went in one ear and out the other. How would you feel if you were told that others have been in a far more difficult scenario, and done far better? Would you believe me if I said it could be you?

WHAT IS MNEMONICS?

Enter mnemonics. A mnemonic is a technique to take something that is ordinarily difficult to remember and make it easy. Whether it be learning new words, remembering to-do lists, speeches for rhetoric, decks of cards, scientific equations, names, faces, or anything else you can imagine. Learning mnemonics will make you a better teacher and a better student. As you practice memorizing decks of cards, you will also practice making ordinary things memorable. If you would like an example of a mnemonic you already know, how about:
“In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue.”

This uses rhyme to help students remember a date, and is one that roughly everyone has heard of. We’re going to talk about mnemonic tools that are far more flexible, and far less annoying (i hate the stupid rhymes from school!).
THE LINKING SYSTEM

The linking system is a tool that will make it easy to remember lists, both backwards and forwards. Let’s say you’re going to the grocery store, and you intend to pick up:

  • Eggs
  • Salmon
  • Cabbage
  • Bread
  • Steak

So the first thing on your list (you’re not taking any paper with you, don’t be lame), is Eggs. So you imagine the store in the shape of an egg. Or you imagine the store, hunched over, laying an egg, or you imagine the store sitting on top of some eggs, with a bunch of cars arranged like twigs in the shape of a nest. The weirder the association, the easier it will be to remember. Notice your own emotional reactions as you imagine each version, to determine which one you want to use.

Congratulations! You’ve just associated going to the store with eggs! That is the first link of your chain. Next you need salmon. Here you could imagine the same things (A salmon shaped like an egg, a salmon in a chicken nest incubating eggs, or a big chicken egg hatching only to see a salmon head pop out and start chirping at you).

This brings us to the first major rule of what makes things memorable, things that engage your emotions are memorable. Neurologically, the emotional processing centers of your brain (the amygdala) are directly adjacent to the hypothalamus, and something that carries strong emotional weight (positive or negative), is far more likely to activate the hypothalamus. As a result a joke is memorable, but unfortunately, so too is that time you saw your uncle do something with a garden hose that traumatizes you to this day. Our brains are also wired to pursue sex, so for the sake of mnemonics you want to go either with a goofy image that makes you laugh or a sexual image (or a goofy sexual image). So not only do you want to visualize the items on this list (say the egg and the salmon) very vividly in your mind, but play with it until it makes you laugh, or is sexual in nature. Imagine the salmon humping a giant egg like a dog until you spray water at it until it calms down. Good luck forgetting that, sucker!

Then for cabbage you imagine a cabbage made of salmon, a salmon with a cabbage for a body, a salmon-shaped cabbage swimming upstream trying to avoid bears, or something else along those lines. Perhaps for bread you imagine a flattened cabbage slowly rising in an oven, or cutting a cabbage into slices to find that inside it’s made of bread, seeing loaves of bread growing in a cabbage patch on top of cabbages. And perhaps for the steak you imagine a steak rising in the oven like bread, or maybe you’re pounding the steak with a stale loaf of bread in order to soften it, or you imagine doughy globs of raw bread hanging from meat hooks in a butcher shop, and that would be enough to remind you of the steak.

By doing this, you create a series of images that takes you through
Store -> Eggs -> Salmon -> Cabbage -> Bread -> Steak.

And while we only used five items so far, it could just as easily be twenty five or more. One convenience is that you’ve now memorized the list backwards and forwards. Had you memorized the alphabet this way, you could’ve really impressed your friends from grade school.

There is one limitation to this technique. If you forget the 17th item in a list of 25, you break the chain, and you lose access to items 18-25. The next technique circumvents this limitation, and additionally, i will teach you how to memorize numbers.

THE MAJOR SYSTEM AND THE PEG SYSTEM

You only have to commit the phone numbers of two or three people before you realize it’s a giant pain in the ass, and thank god you have a phone that stores contact info. Nevertheless, it still pays to memorize one or two emergency numbers, exit numbers for navigation, your credit card number, and addresses. Repeating a number over and over to yourself is called doing it the loser’s way.

What we’re going to do is convert digits into consonant sounds, and use those to build words. Here are the ones i use
0 – s,z (zee as in zee-ro, and s because it’s the same sort of vocal sound as z)
1 – t,d (t because 1 looks like a t, or d, because it’s the similar to the t sound)
2 – N (it kinda looks like an N when sideways)
3 – M (for the same reason as 2)
4 – R (Backwards it looks a little like an ‘R’, but mostly because we need something)
5 – L
6 – Sh, Ch or J (as in Chuck or Jar)
7 – K or G (the ‘K’ sound as in cow, or g as in golf)
8 – F or V (those two are grouped together for the same reasons as the t/d pair)
9 – P or B (since P is kinda like a 9 reversed)

I once moved into an apartment and for the life of me, couldn’t remember the passcode to the garage door opener. After the third time, (should’ve done this on the first, but hey, i can be lazy too), I resolved to use this tool. So, 7920 becomes k-p-n-s which could be “cap noose”, “coop nice” or perhaps “cop nose”. So in my head i imagined a giant nose, with animated stick figure arms and legs, wearing a policeman’s cap, and i heard the batman theme “Nananana-Nananana COP NOSE!” I only lived there for a couple weeks, but I still remember that years later.

This leads to the second lesson as to what makes things memorable: you want to engage as many of your senses as possible. 30%-50% of your brain is devoted to visual processing, and your parietal lobe, associated with auditory processing is 19% of your brain mass . You also engage the emotions more easily when the imagery is bright, vivid, loud and animated. I invite you to go back to the exercise on the grocery list, take the images you were using, and imagine how effective they would be as you shrink them, and as they go from full color to black and white.

While we’re here, let’s do a quick exercise that tests your knowledge so far. I want you to convert these numbers into words and memorize the list in order. It’s shouldn’t take long.

1. 314
2. 159
3. 265
4. 358
5. 979
6. 311
7. 599
8. 796
9. 346
10 854

Congratulations! You’ve memorized the first 30 digits of pi! Now we’ll finally address the limitations of the linking system. So as you already know by now, the linking system links items together into a chain, and while the chain can be arbitrarily long, if you happen to lose the 49th item in a list of 500, you’re kinda fucked. Now imagine if you already had an image for the first item through the 500th item (called pegs), and instead of linking the digits to each other you linked them to your peg?

For example, the digit 1 is t or d, I use “tie.” 314, could be “muddier” or “madder”, in this case I’ll imagine an angry length of mud tied around my neck in the form of a necktie, turning red and yelling at me. Now I know that 314 is the first set of numbers, independently of every other number in the whole. When I practiced memorizing decks of cards, I attached each card to one of 52 pegs. If you asked me to recite it backwards or forwards it didn’t matter, if I missed a card it didn’t matter, and I also had the luxury of calling out the card for random positions (oh yeah, #17 was definitely the queen of hearts). Note also that the peg system and the linking system are not mutually exclusive. Suppose for example you wanted to memorize a list of 500 items, but you didn’t want to set up 500 pegs, perhaps you only had 50, then you make a list of ten items through the linking system, and attach that to the first peg. Then you make a chain of the next ten items and attach that to the second peg, in this way you get 10*50 = 500 items, but with the luxury that on the off chance you fail on any one peg, you miss at most ten items. I must add that these techniques are powerful, but will not always be perfect, particularly when you’re new.

Here’s my system for being a cardsharp!

Take the same consonant sound for a digit, and preface that with the consonant sound for that suit, (s for spades, K for clubs, D for diamonds and H for hearts). Then, follow that with a number from 1-13 for the card’s value (Jack=11, queen=12 and king=13). This enables you to imagine for instance, the Queen of clubs as K-12, K-t-n … katana! If it’s the 13th item in the deck, since 13 is T_M, I use tomb, and i imagine having a funeral for a katana. Maybe the headstone is a giant stone katana, and all the grieving mourners are katanas in suits, and they’re all crying sad katana tears.

One note about overlap, let’s say the peg you set for the number 17 is “Deck”, (i would be tempted to use something more profane, y’know for memory reasons) and you imagine a deck of cards. The 7 of diamonds also uses the same syllables, do not make it a deck! If you use the same image for both then you won’t know whether the deck, decking the dean of your old high school (dean, d-n- is 12 or the 2 of diamonds) means the 7 of diamonds in the 12th place or the 2 of diamonds in the 17th place. Keep it simple. Use profanity!

What I’m about to give you is an application of these techniques that will help preserve your sanity. Here’s a question, have you ever been going through your morning routine on autopilot, and halfway to work you started worrying that maybe you forgot to lock the door? I like to drive with the windows down, and after once going into work at 9am, I stepped onto the parking lot at 6:30pm to discover that the back window was  halfway down. Since then i have found myself compelled to check that all the windows are up. And recheck. And recheck. Every day. Here’s my strategy to ensure you only have to check once. First I convert the date as a number, say 9/25 (today’s date) into an image (P or B)-N-L. I used panel, but let’s pick something more interesting, like pin-wall. When I lock my front door, I imagine a wall of pins collapsing around me, and when I walk to my car, I look back to the front door and see the wall of pins still there. Then, whenever I wonder if I locked my door, I will remember the wall of pins and be comforted. I know I did it today, because yesterday I was attacked by a banner. When I step into the parking lot for work and check my windows the FIRST time, again I imagine the wall of pins, and then I don’t feel compelled to re-check them. It helps with my sanity, and I always know today’s date!

The next technique I will mention is one of the oldest known mnemonic devices, dating back to the ancient Greeks. It’s not one I personally use yet, but I intend to implement it soon, and feats using this technique are the stuff of legend.

THE LOCI SYSTEM

Imagine you are at a party of 200 people. Everyone you meet is more important than you, as you are tonight’s entertainment. A waiter tells you there are two people waiting outside who wish to speak with you about your upcoming performance. As you step out to greet them, you hear a horrifying crack behind you. The building collapses, and the rest of your night is spent clearing rubble and answering questions of the bereaved family members, “Which body is my son’s?”

An ancient Greek poet, who was in that situation, managed to remember everyone at that party by remembering where everyone was sitting. This is the earliest legend of the loci system, and is said to have been the birthplace of mnemonics.

You may not know it from your heavy reliance on google maps, but the human brain is incredibly well tuned to spatial memory. The ability to learn new routes quickly and store maps in our minds served the many centuries we roamed the continents on foot as hunter-gatherers, traversing tens of miles in pursuit of a quarry and having to remember the way home from there. The loci system leverages this to store arbitrary data, and by arbitrary i mean whatever data you want!

Here’s how it works. Right now, visualize a map in your mind of an area you know very well, let’s say it’s your current neighborhood. In your mind’s eye, we’re going to go on a leisurely stroll through this neighborhood. I say leisurely as we will be stopping at every landmark. First stop and close your front door. Step back, and imagine right in front of the door, a big ol’ pile of eggs! Pile it higher than the door itself, until crunched eggs and screaming baby chickens is all you can see. Turn around and head towards the sidewalk and look at your mailbox. Imagine that your mailbox has been turned into a giant salmon, writhing and gasping for water. Continue down the sidewalk that passes your mailbox, until you see the mailbox of your nearest neighbor, imagine that their mailbox has been turned into a giant cabbage. As you pass the next house, you notice that the house itself is far weirder than the mailbox, and you see a giant bread house. It’s almost like a gingerbread house, but far more plain. The smell of freshly baked bread is overpowering. Let’s say you make it to the end of the block. As you get ready to turn the corner, you notice that the corner itself has been turned into a giant steak. Oh god! Steak blood is all over your shoes! Your thoughts shift between the desire to hose off your shoes and hunger for a steak sandwich.

There! We translated the 5 item grocery list into a mnemonic you can remember by using the loci system. Conveniently, this is only limited by the number of places you can remember, or invent. Those locations you use for this memory technique are often called memory palaces, and they can just as easily be fantastical places, so long as you can walk them in your head. An interesting story, one of the people who held the record for memorizing the most digits of pi (well over 10,000), used the loci system to store those digits. When he decided to move onto something else, he spent months walking through his various memory palaces and cleaning out digits of pi one by one.
A FINAL NOTE

I hope you’ve observed by now, that the art of memory is in using every available part of your brain, such as vivid imagery, animation (making the imagery move), sounds, spatial memory, sex, and humor to take a piece of data and make it sticky. I hope you’ve also noticed that both learning and memorizing involve making new connections. Just as neurons connect with each other, you have to connect the new information to something you already know. Practicing these techniques will make you a better student, as you will be able to apply these principles to any piece of information. Practicing these techniques will also make you a better teacher, as you will learn that by making the concept you want to teach silly, by making it raunchy, by making it vivid, and by communicating that silly, raunchy, vivid idea in terms your student understands, you can create for others an unforgettable learning experience. It is my sincere hope that these techniques benefit you at least as much as they do me.

FURTHER READING

“Moonwalking With Einstein” by Joshua Foer. This book tells the story of a journalist looking to do a piece on the smartest people in the world and discovers a group of people competing in “The American Memory Championship.” When he asks each of them “So, when did you learn that you’re a genius.” Their responses stunned him.
“I’m not a genius. I’m using special techniques that anyone could learn, including you. You could just as easily compete here.”
The journalist decided to take the competitor up on that offer, got a mnemonic coach and in the following years competed and won the American memory championships, even going so far as to set a record for fastest time memorizing a deck of cards. That journalist is the author, and it’s a very well written story.

 

“How to Develop a Super Power Memory” by Harry Lorayne. This one is a classic. In addition to teaching the linking, peg and loci systems, he teaches you tricks to never forget a name and face, and to be able instantly tell someone what day of the week they were born on. It’s a party trick my great-grandfather was known for doing. “Oh you were born September 2, 1985? Yes, that was such a lovely tuesday.”

 

“Super Memory Super Student” by Harry Lorayne. This book covers applications of mnemonic techniques tailored specifically for students looking to raise their grades. It includes techniques for learning new words (both in English and foreign languages), for learning historical events and dates, for learning mathematical equations and memorizing scientific facts and figures.

 

“Fluent Forever” by Gabriel Wyner. It covers some very advanced techniques for rapidly learning new languages, and includes systems of mnemonics to deal with things that as a language student I had previously found infuriating, such as knowing the gender of a particular word (in German some vegetables are female whereas a maiden is neuter). Mnemonics has the blessing of making that task easy, and fun. If you want to learn a new language I recommend this book.