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.


Anonymous said...

Great post! Only one thing. 53 cannot be leech. 56 can unless you're using a different system.

Serge Gorodish said...

Yikes! Good catch. I fixed the post.

Anonymous said...

Very kind of you to draw this to my attention. However, it is still of the 'parlor trick' uses of the art. The nature of memory and its uses should,imo, not be confused or conflated with either ars or art but they should be used, as intended, to explore the natura. Pardon me if this seems to belittle your ...achievements . It is , however, the case.