Mnemonics: a primer on numbers and overall topics

Being the amazing technical magician I am, you wouldn’t think I’d rely on something as outdated as my own memory, right? Well, the unexpected happened. We’re gonna talk about a low-tech way to remember anything (you can visualize).

What I got for you today is an appetizer of sorts. I won’t talk about the detailed ins-and-outs of the methods, but my goal is to bring these techniques to your attention. So, without further ado, let’s get into it.

Back to basics: Ancient history

In the days before paper even became a viable transport material for knowledge, there was a high demand for a good memory. Nowadays, the worst that can happen to you is that the website you visited yesterdays will vanish from your bookmarks. Back then, the chances of you seeing a book twice was slim indeed. Most knowledge, even advanced mathematics, was passed down orally. Every speaker, student and learner was required to memorize, lest they enough money to set every written word in stone.

FUN FACT: This method can be seen in Homer’s epithets, e.g. “the swift-footed Achilles” is swift-footed even when sitting. Why? It’s a mnemonic aid to make Achilles stand out from the crowd of the rest of the names.

The art of memory was therefore developed to ease the ingress of any thought or nugget of information. These methods were known throughout history, but with the advent of cheap books and an overload of information, these have fallen to the wayside.

Now, I have taken it upon myself to present a few techniques which may help you in your endeavors, be it binary numbers or entire laws.

Things to keep in mind

Firstly, to set some ground rules, memory is like a flash drive: If you don’t read from it, sooner or later, it will fade. And believe you me, with the amount of information we have flying past our faces every day, that fade will come sooner rather than later.

Secondly, what works for me may not necessarily work for you, but we are all human and as humans, we have some great capability. It is all about using it right and having the discipline to do so.

Thirdly, enjoy yourself. There is no use to learn something if you hate every second. At the end of this article, you may find that you want to learn literally anything, just for the sake of trying it out.

Lastly: The more crazy/disgusting/amazing, the merrier. Images that are impossible to see in real life “stick” better.

Memorizing numbers

The easiest method to try when you’re first starting out is to try and remember a phone number or two… or twenty.

There are methods to remember numbers by using words (one = bun, two = shoe, etc.), but using one word per number is not too easy to store and difficult to recall later. In comparison, let us use a lettering system.

To each number, zero to nine,
let us a letter assign
seven, three, four,
TaMaRa the score!
Now you continue, It’s fine!\

You may have gleamed the technique, but if not, here it is: We take each number from 0-9, assign a single letter (based on any memorable factors), after which we can build words.

Here is my list. If you want, you can use mine, but I encourage you: if you feel my links are too shit for your taste, please, do create your own.

1 = L (a lowercase L looks kind of like a 1)
2 = N (a lowercase N has two legs)
3 = M (a lowercase M has three legs)
4 = R (fouR ends in an R, alternatively, we could use F/V)
5 = K (K is a purely local mnemonic, you could use V/F if you don’t use it for 4)
6 = B/P (these are voiced/unvoiced alternatives of the same sound and may be used interchangeably)
7 = T (T looks like a 7 in certain handwriting)
8 = S (visually similar)
9 = D (ditto, lowercase D is sort of similar)
0 = C or X (X because of Roman 10, C because of visual similarity)

Now, this is all nice and well, but how do we use it for real? Simple: First, we transform a number into its corresponding letters, then we look in our vocabulary and pick a word that contains those letters. Try to avoid letters from the list if you don’t want confusion and try to find something imaginable.

Example time! I give you the following number: 655930. How do we memorize? If I just hit the last 6 numbers of your social security number, you’re done. For the rest of us, there is a million ways to encode the numbers into letters and find words that correspond.

First, let’s go slowly. 2 letters per word. 65 = BK. I imagine the word bake, so a cook baking a cake, for example. 59 = KD. Maybe… kode? As in “Kode with Karlie”? That’ll do. Last pair: 30 = MC. Mic, as in microphone! So, let’s put these two together. The image in my head is a cook presenting a cake for Karlie, who starts eating it with a microphone instead of a spoon!

Now, there are many ways to skin a cat, therefore, we can find a more suitable way to encode these. For me, 2 letters per word is a little… too restrictive. Let us now take three-digit codes and see how it goes.

655 and 930. Which may this be? Let us start with the latter. The letters DMC speak for themselves. It could be Devil May Cry, or the band Run DMC. I will present the former in my resulting image.

Now, the point where “disgusting” and “unbelievable” really pays off. The letters BKK, to me, come out as BUKKAKE. Call me a pervert, but that is the point of the whole memory technique: Your thoughts are your own. In your head, everything is okay. Therefore, don’t worry about putting hardcore pornography or anything disgusting in your mind.

The final image, therefore, is Dante from Devil May Cry, taking a huge load on his face from several dudes. Voila, done.

Location, location, location

Before we had ways to communicate with our friends about where to find the tastiest burger, we lived in the wild. One thing our brains had to develop was spatial memory. If I asked you how to walk from your room to the fridge, you could tell that path to me even if I woke you at midnight, even if you were a thousand miles away. If I asked you about the orientation of every door along the way, you’d tell me after only a second’s hesitation. This is how good our brains became at tracking our surroundings.

How can we use this to our advantage? Our brain has a memory for unusual images and locations. Let us combine the two together and start placing these images in places we set beforehand.

Let us imagine your journey to work. First, you wake up. The bed, alarm clock, the bedroom door, these are the first three points you may set for your journey. Going further along the route, your bathroom, the toilet paper you use, a toothbrush, everything you do, see or use can be replaced with an image. Go ahead and try! You will be surprised by how well it works!

Places can be everywhere

We now have a rough idea of what to save and can confidently create new images. The crazier you can make an image, you can make any topic stick. The question of placement is the one you shall be plagued with for the rest of your life. It will motivate you to travel, to find new places, even read more books on different topics just to get a vocabulary going! But there is another way I am trying to refine now: virtual palaces for my memories. Just as you could tell me the way from bed to fridge in your home, you could do the same in the house from the Simpsons. Or Friends. Or any series, game or book you have in your vivid memory. This is the beauty of the human mind. We are incredibly capable at memorizing places, so why not just put a crazy image where your fridge would normally be!

Practice makes perfect

These memories will last for a week, at best. Why? Because if you don’t repeat something, it won’t stick. As they say, practice makes perfect. Try to repeat the information, each time letting the memory fade for a bit before refreshing. This way, the thought will stick in time. You had to read your phone number for a few tries, but then it got better, right? You could remember every state in alphabetical order this way! You just need a place and enough places (or “pegs”) to fit the list.

Where do we go from here?

If you found this interesting, I can point you in the right direction for a better starter than I could ever provide.

1) Art of Memory
2) Memory: How to develop, train and use it - William Walker Atkinson
3) Magnetic memory method

These are but a tiny amount of information on the topic. Let me know what you used this method for!

-m