Memory Training Crash Course, Part II

Okay, so it's been two years since Part I. Super-quick review: images are easier to remember than symbols or words, and you can help yourself recall images—by making them absurd, outrageous, or offensive. I'm still weaker than I want to be at remembering people's names (notwithstanding theoretically having learned the secret years ago), but I have noticed it works better if I allow my brain to indulge in childish impulses that I had left behind. As George Carlin says, "I always felt sorry for guys whose names were Dick and Peter." Next time you meet a Dick or Peter, recall this comment and allow yourself a (secret) mental snigger at the image it brings to mind. See if the name doesn't stick in your mind.

For abstract information such as numbers or playing cards, more sophisticated tools must be brought into play as well. The Major system is a simple but powerful tool for translating numbers into words—and hence into concrete images—that can then be memorized by other means.

It is simplest to explain by starting at the reverse endtranslating words into numbers. One must invest the time to memorize the following phonetic code:

s, z become 0
t, d, th become 1
n becomes 2
m becomes 3
r becomes 4
l becomes 5
ch, sh, j become 6
k, (hard) g become 7
f,v become 8
p,b become 9

Anything not on this list—w, h, y and any vowel sounds—is ignored. Any word or phrase can be translated into a unique sequence of digits using the code. Take the word "fan", for example. F becomes 8, a is ignored, and n becomes 2, so "fan" becomes the number 82. Keep in mind these are sounds, not lettersso "phone" also becomes 82. This example also shows that a single number can correspond to more than one word (or phrases). On the other hand, (a crucial point) two different numbers will never correspond to the same word.

The game gets more interesting when you play it the other way around: find a word or phrase to correspond to a sequence of digits:

0 becomes s, z
1 becomes t, d, th
2 becomes n
3 becomes m
4 becomes r
5 becomes l
6 becomes ch, sh, j
7 becomes k, (hard) g
8 becomes f,v
9 becomes p,b

This can test your vocabulary. Consider for example the number 102. This translates into dsn or dzn or tzn or tsn. We could use the single word "dozen", but this has the drawback of being difficult to visualize (as well as inviting confusion with the number twelve). I prefer "hoatzin". I just happen to know what this is (an atavistic species of bird with claws on its wings) thanks to my abnormal predilections in childhood reading. Every two-digit number can be expressed as a single word (usually in several ways); most three digit numbers have single-word equivalents; with four digits or more it's hit-and-miss. I have, by the way, found the 2Know freeware program to be an extremely useful tool—it allows you to enter any sequence of digits and searches a rather deep dictionary for equivalents or partial equivalents.

So, for example, if you want to memorize the first several digits of Pi:


you can convert it to the phrase:

moderately paunchy, lamely phobic bahamian amphora.

Of course, this is nonsensical, but as explained in Part I, that hardly interferes with committing it to memory.

By the way, I see that this code was devised in almost the same form by Gregor von Feinagle in 1808. I would have thought it was some person named Major, but there you go. This leaves the name of the system as something of a mystery.

Most who make frequent use of this system use a set of "peg words": standard terms representing the numbers up to 100. This spares even a moment's hunting for a suitable word in the easy cases, and also allows one to associate particular items with each of the numbers up to 100 and reliably recall them later. For example, for me, the number 56 is always "leech" (unless I have a specific reason to choose something different). I can associate anything with the number 56 by mentally connecting it to the concept of "leech." That wouldn't help if the next time I think of 56 I convert it to "eyelash"—but I won't, because by now when I think 56 I instantly think "leech." In a future post, I'll give my own list of peg words for numbers from 00 to 100.

Of all the various self-help gimmicks I've tried over the years, I think memory training must be the best in terms of cost-benefit ratio. I routinely use this to remember phone numbers, account numbers, and so on.

And This is How Brain Cells Get Used Up

Photo by Max East

Check out this nifty video that shows a whole hike along the more than 2000 miles of the Appalachian trail, compressed into five minutes. One particular instant (literally) that caught my eye was the appearance of a stile.

In case you don't know what a stile is, it is a set of steps used to cross over a fence. I presume that animals don't care to climb up and over the steps.

And in case you do know what a stile is, then I have one question for you:


This was the question I was asking myself after watching the video. Why do I know the name of this thing? I can specifically recall in distant childhood my parents explaining it to me. Out of all the words they could have chosen to explain to me—"diabetes", "micromanagement", "bagels", etc.they chose the word "stile." I can only assume that they expected my adult life to be filled with various and sundry stile-related activities, but in this as in so many other respects, events did not develop as expected.

So, as it turns out, I have some number of brain cells devoted to remembering this word, describing an object which I have encountered maybe once in my life, and which could just as well be described by a phrase "a set of steps used to cross over a fence," and which in fact lies dormant for years (except for occasional Julia Stiles-related thoughts). How do I get those brain cells back?

Scurvy of the Soul

In this scene from the 1960 Spartacus, the leader of the slave revolt meets several new volunteers, escaped slaves, including the house slave Antoninus whose talents include singing songs and also juggling. Spartacus's skepticism is apparent. Later on, Spartacus comes to embrace the singing of songs as a necessity undergoes a change of heart and embraces the singing of songs as a necessity even for a rebel army.

This little bit of byplay came to mind when I saw the recent heartwarming (aww...) story about the chorus from a New York city working-class elementary school that was invited to perform at the Oscar ceremony, and also while reading Kelly Tyler-Lewis's book The Lost Men, about Shackleton's Ross Sea party. Many have heard of Shackleton's failed attempt to cross the Antarctic continent, and the various heroic efforts by which he managed to bring back the entire crew alive.

Well, not quite the entire crew, it turns out—if you take into account the second of Shackleton's parties, who sailed to the opposite side of the continent in order to lay down caches of supplies for Shackleton, whom they expected to be trekking across. Three of that party did not make it back.

Scurvy was one of a thousand problems Shackleton's Ross Sea party had to deal with—even though by that time it was well known that scurvy could be prevented by drinking lime juice, or even (I didn't know this) by eating seal meat. The problem was the expedition cut corners and didn't drink nearly enough juice, or some just refused to eat seal meat because they didn't like it. I like to think I myself would just eat the damn meat and deal with it (especially since food overall was fairly scant), but then again, I've never tasted seal, so who am I to judge?

Scurvy provides a useful metaphor for a more widespread paradox worth keeping in mind: Cut back to the bare essentials, and you will find something essential missing.

This is the problem with the current mania for schools to cut out art and music programs, or physical education, or even recess. Bean counters may have a difficult time distinguishing such "non-academic" pursuits from mere amusement. But an academic program stripped down to the absolute essentials is like a diet stripped down to essential bulk foods—the brain is doomed to suffer a slow, wasting death, particularly when it comes to curiosity about the larger world.

Take another look at those kids from New York P.S. 22? How easy it to get any bunch of 6-to-12-year olds to buy into a program which demands discipline, and teamwork? And how many such programs can demonstrate clearly that discipline and hard work pay off?