How to build a better memory

“Memory is the mother of all wisdom.” – Aeschylus

As Harry Lorayne points out in his many books on memory, the first thing to understand is that most of the time you don’t “forget” something, rather you did not remember in the first place. You heard or saw the information, but it passed through your brain without registering.

Contrast that with something memorable. If on your next birthday a squirrel burst out of your cake, shook its fist at you, stole your wallet and ran out the door, you would probably never forget it.

That is all you really need to know. To remember something, you need to find a way to make it “memorable” – the more creative or unusual, the better. The following are some techniques to help you do so.

Technique 1: The Link System

This is a technique for remembering an arbitrary list of things in sequence. For example: lamp, paper, bottle, bed, fish, phone, window, flower, nail, and computer. The procedure is very simple:

  • Pick the first two objects in the list (lamp and paper)
  • Create a crazy and unusual image that links the two. Think of a piece of paper turning on a lamp; a lamp taking a swim in a pool filled with paper; a lamp and a piece of paper in a wrestling match; etc
    • TIP: Like any story, the more sights, sounds, feelings and other details you add, the better
    • TIP: Exaggeration is a good technique (a 15’ tall lamp; 1 million lamps; etc)
  • Repeat for all items. Paper & bottle? A (news)paper filling 1 million bottles. Bottle & bed? A giant bottle sleeping on a bed.
  • Review your list until you have it (lamp wrestles paper, paper takes a break to fill 1 million bottles, 1 bottle grows into a giant and gets into bed, and so on…)

Technique 2:  Substitution

Substitution means taking a word and coming up with asimilar sounding set of words that you can use to make a story to help you’re member. Vocabulary is an obvious example:

  • Word: insouciant, meaning “free from concern, worry or anxiety; carefree; nonchalant”
  • Subsititution: in soup ants [NOTE: This part is highly personal – it if doesn’t make sense, use something else]
  • Story: A bunch of ants are “hot-tubbing” in a bowl of soup, their hands behind their head, relaxing and completely carefree

This is highly useful for learning people’s names. Let’s say you just met Mike Campbell. Picture a can of soup (Campbell’s) at open “mike” (microphone) night about to sing a song. Think of that picture a few times while looking at their face. It works quite well.

Technique 3: Phonetic alphabet for numbers

Numbers are particularly difficult to remember because they don’t easily translate into stories or pictures. The answer is to change those numbers to words using a standard phonetic alphabet, focusing on the sounds of the word, rather than the spelling (which can be a bit odd in standard English). Here is the alphabet, along with a trigger for how to remember it:

  • 1 = t,d (t has 1 downstroke)
  • 2 = n (n has 2 downstrokes)
  • 3 = m (m has 3 downstrokes)
  • 4 = r (r is the final letter of four)
  • 5 = l (L is 50 in roman numerals)
  • 6 = j, sh, ch (“6” kind of looks like a reverse “J”)
  • 7 = k (Think of k as formed by two 7s)
  • 8 = f, v, ph (think of a cursive f as a squished 8)
  • 9 = p, b (“9” is a mirror of “P”)
  • 0 = s, soft c, z (z is the first letter of zero)

All of the other letters (you’ll use mainly the vowels) don’t count as part of the numbering system. For example, “Chain” is 62 (“Ch” = 6, “ai” doesn’t count, and “n” = 2). Once you have that, you can try a more complicated number such as the following:

3  1 4 1 5 9 2 6 5 3 5 8 9 7 9
M t  r t  l p n g  l m  l v p k p  
Motor-Tulip-Angel-My love-Pick Up

Use a linked list to remember those 5 items.

In effect you want to turn it into a short story: Picture a motor with a tulip growing out of it. An Angel flies out of the tulip blossom, and from his heart a tiny cupid comes out (“my love”). The cupid then jumps into a pick-up (truck) and drives away. Try a few times to remember that story.

If you did so, congratulations! You now know π to 15 digits

Technique 4: Numbers Shortcut – The Peg List

Because numbers come up so frequently, a “peg list” is simply a pre-memorized list of numbers using the phonetic alphabet. For example, 1=Tie, 2=Noah, 3=Ma, 4=Rye, 5=Law, etc. Want to remember that James Monroe was the 5th president of the United States? Picture him in a police uniform (law). Done. You can find many suggested peg lists online. A tool like Anki is very useful for learning them. I built an anki deck for that purpose, and I’d be happy to share if you want to email me.

Peg lists are not just for numbers. You can also create peg lists for months (Jan=Janitor, Feb=Heart, etc) and letters (A=Ape, B=Bear, etc).

Great for future dates. When is that next big event? Let’s say it’s October 11, which you would remember as an “Octopus” dressed like King “Tut”. Yet another hard to forget image.

Other Uses:
  • Cards – You can use the system to memorize a deck of cards. Great for card tricks and poker
  • School – Look up the “grid” method to memorize the periodic table of the elements
  • Random Facts (Peg List) – All US presidents, each state and when the entered the union
  • Anything else you need to remember

Want to learn more?

Here are a few resources you can check out if you want to explore this idea further:

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