Some people have an impressive natural memory. But few are gifted with a photographic memory or an unusually high capacity for retention. Most will admit that their memory is poor or, at least, in need of significant improvement.
Over the course of human history, people have developed many mental techniques to increase and perfect memory. Repetition (a.k.a. rote learning) is perhaps one method that most will know from their schooldays. Another technique is to use the first letter of words to make a sentence, such as the famous “Richard of York goes battling in vain” (or “gave battle in vain” in some versions) for the seven colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). The lyrics of a song or rhyme can be remembered more easily than words alone because somehow the music and rhymes help us remember.
These are called mnemonics (from the Greek word for memory – μνημονικός (mnēmonikos), and can be defined as memory aids or devices. However, some memory experts, such as some stage magicians and memory champion competitors, have developed mnemonics much further.
One of the intermediate mnemonic techniques is to put into story form the things you have to remember. This technique is good for items that you wish to remember in a certain sequence. It is achieved simply by associating an item to remember with the one before it by putting it into a story. For example, if you wanted to remember the items lion, book, tree and ball (for say a Christmas list – a toy lion and Christmas tree of course!) then you might want to imagine a lion reading a book under a tree with a ball bouncing past.
It’s important to remember the story as a sequence rather than one scene so as not to confuse the sequence. So, the lion may be walking along in scene one, finds a book in scene two, sits under a tree to read the book in scene three, and then is distracted from his book as a ball bounces past in scene four. The sequence may or may not be important – you might buy all those items in one store. However, if the toy story is nearest, followed by the bookstore and then the Christmas-tree seller and, finally, the sports store, then the exact sequence takes on more significance.
If you lose your shopping list, the technique can be useful. However, more often than not, people learn these techniques for exams or simple party tricks rather than practical daily usage. However, you can use these techniques for everything from memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names and faces and poetry. Each of these uses have real impact on your daily life. They can transform you from being a victim of forgetfulness into a polyglot with great social skills and plenty of jokes, quotes and sayings to entertain and enlighten the people that you meet.
Limitations Of The Story Technique
However, the story technique has its limitations. You cannot, for example, immediately identify the position of an item without going through the whole of the story up to that point (and you have to remember the number as well as repeat this for each query). That’s why Memory Palaces are so critical.
More sophisticated techniques can be very impressive as party tricks if you take the time to learn how to do them and do not suffer from the limitation mentioned above. Below is one such technique which is called the Major System. It’s thought to have been around for about 300 years, and is the basis for powerful memory techniques developed by more recent experts in the field.
This system is based upon the truth that we remember images better than we remember numbers. Words of course convey their own image, but numbers do not. This makes number very difficult to remember, especially long ones.
The Major System, to overcome this restriction of the human memory, converts numbers into letters (or, more accurately, sounds) which then form words.
The Major System, a.k.a. The Major Method Explained
These sounds are as follows (and come with their own little memory prompt):
0 – s, z (zero begins with “z”)
1 – t, d (these consonants have one downstroke)
2 – n (has two downstrokes)
3 – m (three downstrokes)
4 – r (“fouR”)
5 – l (Roman L is 50)
6 – sh, j, soft g, soft ch (“j” and “g” look a bit like a 6 when rotated)
7 – k, hard ch, hard g (two 7s can be arranged to look like a “k”)
8 – f, v (there are loops in an “f” and an “8”)
9 – b, p (rotate or mirror these consonants to look like a 9)
Remember these are sounds. So, for example, the sound of the “c” in the word “cent” would be associated with the digit 0. Vowel sounds are taken to represent no number.
Once memorized you can use these sounds to form words based around each number. You could devise your own list, based on variations that you best remember the images for, or use pre-existing lists which abound in printed books and on the Internet.
To clarify how this works, let’s look at a very simple example of how you might use this to impress your friends.
You tell your friends that you want them to shout out 17 items one might buy in a shop. They should do this one at a time. As they do this, one of them should write each item down as it is spoken (without you being able to see the list).
As each item is stated, you associate the image of that item with the image that is created by the sounds which make up the digit. This can be done surprisingly quickly, as long as you have memorized your number list first. Rather than go through all the numbers on your pre-memorized list, let’s just look at two of them.
“Potato” is the second item your friends shout out. An “n” sound is linked to the number 2 in the system, and so you could use the image of Noah to represent this number in your personal list – remember, vowel sounds are not counted. You could imagine Noah’s Ark full of potatoes, or even Noah defying the Flood by rescuing himself, his family, and the animals, by taking refuge on a giant floating potato. Sometimes the more silly the image, the easier it is to remember.
“Pineapple” is the final item your friends shout out for you to memorize. Having memorized your Major System words beforehand, you know that seventeen represents a duck. When you were playing around with the possible permutations of sounds for a “1” and a “7” you decided to choose a “d” and a “k” sound in order to make the word “duck” – and that word, once learned, became your permanent image word for the number 17 as did “Noah” for number 2.
All you then do is associate these two images again, as you did with the first example. So, you might think of a duck swimming around in a pond with a pineapple on its back. Whatever image works for you, use it.
The beauty of this system is that you can recall any part of it in isolation, unlike the story method. So, if you then ask you friends to ask for either an item or a list number you can immediately report back to them the correct answer by the association. If they ask you what number 17 is, then you remember the duck and then identify the pineapple on its back. If they ask what number the potato is then you remember Noah sailing on a giant spud and you answer “2” because Noah represents two on your memorized list of words.
You can memorize up to about a hundred fairly easily, and there are advanced ways you can use this technique to create virtual filing systems in your own mind if you have the persistence. Storing this “data” in your own mind, together with the use of formulae, can create some stunning party tricks. You might even want to use it for something useful too! In fact, you should. It’s important to actually use these miraculous techniques in order to improve your life and the lives of others.
Ignore Those Who Doubt Memory Techniques …
Some complain that these techniques are artificial in a sense and do not rely upon true memory. This is false. The mind is a natural organ and everything that goes on in it must be natural too. Plus, it’s always a good thing to exercise that gray matter a bit more. Think, for example, of all the people you will impress when you actually remember their names. Think of how good you’ll feel when you can recite a poem from off the top of your head and add 100 words to your vocabulary.
For more information on memorizing names and faces to impress your friends, please visit How to Memorize Names and Faces. Watch the free video for a quick lesson that will make your mind and your memory truly Magnetic. 🙂
About the author: Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st Century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, dreams, names, music, poetry and much more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.