If you want to know how to memorize the periodic table, chances are you’ve heard the following advice:
- Use songs
- Use flashcards
- Use acronyms or acrostics
- Use associations
- Use a Memory Palace
Some trainings even suggest that you combine all of the above in order to speed up the process.
If such vague suggestions make you want to pull your hair out, let’s talk about the truth so you have a real shot at getting what you want:
The only way anyone can memorize the periodic table quickly is to already be good with memory techniques, ideally the Memory Palace technique. In fact, you’ll probably want several Memory Palaces in the manner I’ll show you in this guide.
But don’t put the cart ahead of the horse.
And don’t fall for the clickbait nonsense about memorizing the massive amount of information on the periodic table “fast.” Rest assured, there’s no question that it can be done. You just need to have the real secrets of how to do it already working for you.
Here’s what this post will cover:
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The Right Way to Memorize the Periodic Table
As I’ve just revealed, this process is only going to be fast if you already know your way around memory strategies like the Memory Palace.
But even knowing how to memorize the elements of the periodic table will not necessarily mean that you’ll actually do it. And it also doesn’t mean that you’ll understand the information encoded by the table.
So the first step you need to cover has nothing to do with memory techniques.
You have to know your reason why. Seriously: Why do you want to memorize this information?
If you don’t already keep a Memory Journal, get one. Then, on a fresh page, write out at least 5 reasons why you want to memorize this particular information.
- Is it to show off?
- To pass an exam?
- To become a great chemist?
If you cannot find five distinct reasons why, then it’s time to face the facts: You’re probably going to give up because the sheer mental strength needed without a reason why is just too much for most mere mortals to pull through such a goal.
What Do You Need To Memorize From The Periodic Table?
Next, think about exactly what you need to know. Do you need to know the names? The abbreviations? The atomic numbers? Do you have to recall each element in order? Do you have to be able to visualize the table in your mind?
These possibilities are important to know, because this information will shift how thoroughly you approach the task.
Next, I want you to make sure you perform a bit of “brute force learning.” This means knowing:
- Who created the Periodic Table
- When it was created
- Why it was created
- What changes have been made to it over time
- What problems it solves
- How it solves those problems
As you go through its Wikipedia and associated information, you’ll be laying the groundwork for some of the next-level memory tools that will help you truly learn it, not just memorize its information. You’ll see just how important this will be for your success soon.
How to Memorize the Periodic Table: A Proven Process
Now that we’ve abandoned the fantasy that this task can be done quickly without pro memory skills first, and covered having a good reason why, here’s the next step most memory experts and memory athletes would use:
Have a number of Memory Palaces ready.
I think of these clusters as “Memory Palace Networks.”
To create them quickly, go back to that Memory Journal.
How long should it take to create each Memory Palace?
The answer depends on your current level of skill. But for most people who complete my training, each one should take no more than 2-5 minutes. I suggest you draw them and there are at least three reasons why:
Now, there are many different ways you can configure your Memory Palaces. I’m going to take you through an intermediate-level suggestion that will hopefully get you excited so that improving your skills with memory techniques is a no brainer.
But always remember this:
How you choose to proceed will depend on your exact goal, something only you can identify.
Let’s continue with the steps you need to consider.
Obviously, you’ll want a diagram of the Periodic Table. You can download this one for free at Pixabay.
I suggest you print it out and paste a copy in your Memory Journal. Put a second one on your office wall, or somewhere you’ll see it every day. That’s not to help you remember any of the information. It’s to help you remember your commitment to the goal of memorizing everything on it.
Spend some time just looking at the information. Observe it closely.
Here’s what I observe as a mnemonist who works on memorizing large bodies of information:
The periodic table has two blocks. Whereas one is irregularly shaped and large, the other is small and uniform.
On the top block, you have columns that have either seven or four blocks each. The final four horizontal columns contain eighteen units of information. (In fact, each block contains three or four distinct pieces of information, but we’ll get to that later.)
Let’s keep focused on the top block and think about some of the ways we can use the Memory Palace technique to memorize the information.
My first instinct is to create seven Memory Palaces to cover the large block on the top.
For example, Hydrogen and Helium would be in Memory Palace one. Using the Method of Loci, this Memory Palace would have just two stations.
The second Memory Palace would then have eight stations to cover Lithium to Neon.
Once complete, I would take a break before adding two more Memory Palaces of fourteen stations each for the second, regular-shaped block.
Let’s have a look at how this would play out from a purely spatial perspective using the second horizontal column.
This column contains eight elements. To rapidly memorize them, I would then want eight Magnetic Stations in a well-formed Memory Palace.
These Magnetic Stations follow all the Magnetic Memory Method principles and are:
- Bookcase (barely visible in the photo, but it’s there)
- Music stand
Don’t worry if this isn’t clear yet. I’ve got 5 more Memory Palace examples you can learn from.
Now, I know what you’re thinking:
I wanted an easy way to memorize the periodic table! And now you’re placing the information from right to left, instead of left to right!
Trust me, this is not only incredibly easy once you have the skills. It’s also a lot of fun. And the reason that I am laying out the information in what appears to be the opposite direction will take an entire course to explain. Why not pull up a seat in my course and learn all about it now?
How to Remember Each Element
You want to have enough Memory Palaces to memorize all of the elements. For that, you need to create a Memory Palace Network. You could potentially memorize every single element in just one, but I think that’s putting too much pressure on most minds. I certainly would not approach the task that way.
You also need to decide how you want the information to fall in the Memory Palaces. I’ve chosen a horizontal method. However, you could just as easily choose a vertical method. This approach would require at least eighteen Memory Palaces, but you could do it with less if you’re skilled and work out your strategy.
Now we need to figure out how we’re going to place the information in these Memory Palaces. We do this through a process called elaborative encoding. It’s a scientific term for taking information we already know and associating it with information we don’t know. Or, in the case of a word like Lithium, which pretty much everyone knows, we just want to know where it falls on the table and additional information related to it.
If you’re familiar with one of the ways to use the pegword method, you might draw upon those skills.
Here’s where your “why” and exactly what you need to memorize is going to be important.
Let’s take Lithium, for example:
On this version of its Periodic Table listing you have:
- Atomic number (3)
- Element symbol (Li)
- Full name (Lithium)
- Atomic mass (6.938)
Let’s say we want to account for all of this information. The best approach will probably be to memorize from the top-down, starting with the atomic number. In this case, we’ll need to use the Memory Palace accordingly. Like this:
Let me explain these images:
- Atomic number = moustache. Using a number-shape system, 3 looks a lot like a moustache on its side. As an alternative, you could use macaroni or the McDonald’s logo.
- Element symbol = Link from The Legend of Zelda. I actually think about his LinkedIn profile (i.e. Li.)
- Full name = It’s not reflected in the mnemonic example above, but I imagine that Link is listening to the Nirvana song “Lithium.”
- Atomic Mass. In this case, I am drawing upon a 00-99 PAO (Person Action Object) system. It’s built on the Major Method.
For reasons you’ll discover by learning any of the main techniques for memorizing numbers, Jeep is my personal image for 69 and Max Maven is my image for 38. There are many different images you can choose from, and mine have evolved over time.
Your next memory trick is to get these images interacting in a multi-sensory way. Here’s How to Build A Memory Palace which includes details on making this happen in a memorable way.
The basic idea is to create a kind of chain reaction with special properties you can train yourself to automatically tap into with these sensory memory exercises.
In this case, the moustache which represents three crashes down on Link who uses his wooden sword to pop a tire on the Jeep, causing a bolt to fly at Max Maven, who stops it using magical powers. The bolt represents the decimal in 6.938. As this entire image unfolds, I hear the Nirvana song Lithium as if I were Link listening to it.
How To Make Sure Each Element Gets Into Long-Term Memory
I suggest you start small and work one column at a time. If you choose the horizontal columns method, you’ll have them all memorized in numerical order by their Atomic Number.
In each Memory Palace, I suggest that you use a process called Active Recall. It means that you deliberately ask your memory to bring back the information you placed in the Memory Palace.
In my case, I would think about the bookcase. Then, I would relax and ask myself… “What was happening there?”
Because I have practiced these techniques for many years, I’ll probably think about the moustache, guided by the fact I decided upon how much of the information I wanted to know from the beginning. (Remember, you have to know your goal intimately first.)
If you only wanted to remember the world “lithium,” then obviously you would want to call back the imagery you created and placed in your Memory Palace just for that target information.
Next, I’ll assume that you’ve memorized all eight of the Elements that appear in this horizontal column.
You’ll want to call them to mind first, then write them out by hand in your Memory Journal. (Make sure you don’t cheat, however. Genuinely test yourself first and check the answers only later.)
Later, when you’re certain that your Magnetic Imagery is working, recall each Element you memorized in the following patterns:
- Forward (Magnetic Stations 1-8)
- Backward (Magnetic Stations 8-1)
- From the middle to the beginning (Magnetic Stations 4-1)
- From the middle to the end (Magnetic Stations 5-8)
- Station skipping (Magnetic Stations 1,3,5,7,8,6,4,2)
Why follow these patterns?
Because you will be harnessing the best of:
The Primacy Effect
The Recency Effect
The Serial Positioning Effect
Sure, you can get Anki or some other spaced-repetition software to present the information to you based on similar patterns.
The Problem With Software For Learning The Elements
But the problem is that these softwares don’t get you bringing together the forces of creative repetition and active learning. Your brain needs a bit of challenge to learn.
And when you use the techniques I shared with you today, you’ll get real results. And then you can apply your memory to even more challenging goals.
Everything begins when you’re sure about your why and you’re clear about what exactly needs to be memorized. Once you’ve got that covered, you truly can learn so fast, it’ll make you head spin – in a good way, of course.