Chances are, you don't know how your memory works because neither you nor your parents were ever told anything about it in school. I know of no government funded school that teaches students how to remember. If the information that you want to remember is verbal information involving numbers or letters, you can remember it only briefly unless you deliberately process it.
As children, we do all sorts of things with our mind to break this barrier and establish such items of information as more permanently recallable. Some of these things are unconscious and some are conscious. Most do not work as well as we would wish them to.
On the other hand, if you saw and heard a lion on a familiar street, you would probably remember the event for the rest of your life. The five senses have been critical to our survival for at least two hundred thousand years, while the need to remember names, addresses, phone numbers, and text began much more recently. Our ability to remember information encoded by means of letters and numbers is far less impressive than our ability to remember information obtained through the five senses without such encoding.
You can test the difference. Look at a pile of photographs. Stare at them for three seconds each. Then have a friend mix an equal number of new pictures in a shuffled pile. You will easily distinguish between the pictures of the first set and those of the set that was added - even if the old and new sets number in the hundreds.
Rote memorization is not the only method you can use to permanently learn new material.
What kind of thinking makes recall reliable? If you knew the answer to that question, your recall would not be a matter of chance. After you practice the methods explained here, you will be able to remember vast arrays of details without using a pen or a computer. You will reliably remember what you do, see, hear, and read. You will even be able to devise your own methods for recalling any sort of experience. In addition, knowing how the human memory works will enable you to make your speaking and writing more memorable to others.
The difference between the average recall ability and the recall ability you will have after this training is truly enormous. If you were shown playing cards, one at a time for two or three seconds each, would you be able to recall all 52 of them in order at a later date? Could you greet 30 people in a twenty minute period and write down their names and descriptions hours later? These and similar feats are within the reach of any normal person. Take a look at what people do at the World Memory Championships. More importantly, imagine how your performance as a student or a worker could be improved.
All methods require preparation that links the ancient mental methods of remembering experience with the more modern types of information.
In addition to explaining methods well-known to memory experts, this article introduces enhanced methods of preparation that make better use of your unique experiences and personal.
There are two critical facts: First, any item you notice will soon be forgotten unless you actively pay attention to it. Second, in all cases, what you already know must be used to make new experiences retrievable, and this works much better if it is done deliberately.
You may have noticed that you retain new information more easily when that information is in a subject you already know a lot about. This is a clue. Associating one thing with another is the essential act of the mind that allows new information to be retained for the long term. Previously learned information must be associated with the new information that you are trying to commit to memory. This may fail to occur; it may happen unintentionally; or it may happen unconsciously. The most reliable learning is done both intentionally and consciously.
Rote memorization creates a multitude of associations over time through repetition. Remembering, or even being conscious of, all the sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts that you experienced during the rote memorization process is not necessary. There are a great many associations created. The process leads to fast recall of the memorized items without the need to recall any of these many accidental associations.
Deeply ingrained associations acquired by means of long-term repetition or intensive rote training facilitate fast and automatic recall thereafter. For instance, it is sometimes dangerous to say "halt" on a battlefield because the well-trained combatant hearing this word will reliably halt, whether that is a good idea at that time or not. In psychological jargon, military people are said to overlearn such commands. It is useful and appropriate to overlearn some kinds of material.
Associations more conscious than those at play in rote memorization can be used to speed the learning process. If this is applied to information that you will frequently use, the conscious associations used to speed the learning process eventually become superfluous and thereafter may go unused.
Rote associations produced by the memorization of a collection of things in a particular order are inherently one-way associations. You might have difficulty reciting the alphabet backwards unless you also memorized the alphabet in the reverse order. This illustrates a potential problem in non-rote memorization as well. Just because you associate Lake Ontario with water does not mean that water will reliably remind you in particular of Lake Ontario.
If you identify an item as something you don't want to risk forgetting, and you must use this information before you have time to complete a rote-learning process or obtain a recording instrument, you must intentionally and consciously associate it with something you already know well. To have an extraordinary memory, you must know many things that are not painful to recall and that are part of a structure.
This act of associating a new experience with older experiences will keep the information from being lost forever, but that does not, in itself, guarantee easy recall. Imagine throwing all of your documents into the same filing cabinet without separating categories or giving retrieval any conscious thought. Later, you might be able to say only that "it's in there somewhere." Recalling an item buried in an unorganized pile of items can require you to ruminate for hours or days. Once in 2011, I wanted to recall the name Reginald Van Gleason, III, a fictional character portrayed on The Jackie Gleason Show around 1954. As a child, I learned the name of this fictional character quite unintentionally and without any conscious thought concerning recall. It took me perhaps two hours spent over the next two days to recall that name. Life offers much more information than we have any compelling reason to deal with. Haphazard association is a very likely mental habit. The cure is deliberately organizing information with structures that you choose and that you like.
Your mind is capable of multiple kinds of thinking. These include verbal, visual and tactile processing as well as others. Separate parts of the brain work simultaneously to help us appreciate, for instance, sound together with sight. Our memory works best when more than one kind of thinking is involved in the process of associating new information with familiar information.
Most memory experts, if not all, recognize that visual scenes are more readily committed to long-term memory than verbal concepts or written symbols. That's why they so often recommend associating real-world scenes with verbal and symbolic information.
This is not to be conflated with Multitasking. To do tasks well, you must do them one at a time.
The first m in the word mnemonic is silent. The e is as in men, the o is as in on and the i is as in mix. The second syllable gets the accent, so it's pronounced ne-MON-ics.
A mnemonic is any mental event that you decide to use to stand for something else. A mnemonic could be a place, a sound, an action, the sight of an object - absolutely anything you choose. A mnemonic can stand for anything you wish it to. The pictures in the right-hand colum of this page are examples of mnemonics for numbers and letters. Numbers and letters are verbal and symbolic whereas the pictures are first processed visually. These mnemonics create a link between verbal and visual thinking. The examples may get you started, but eventually, you will need to create or use associations that are prompted by your own experience, or are at least consistent with your values and interests.
Most books on mnemonics suggest specific mnemonics for specific memory tasks. The pictures located to the right of this text can be used to appreciate the kinds of associations made by memory experts. This works quickly and sometimes it works permanently, but I strongly suggest that your own experience be made the source of your mnemonics.
In ancient Greece, there were orators who dazzled audiences by reciting very long speeches from memory and precisely repeating those speeches on other occasions. Typically, their method made use of a path in the city that they had often walked. The many places along the walk (a building, a corner, a yard, a vendor who was always there) were each consciously and deliberately associated with part of the speech. Features of these places were associated with ideas, sentences or words. Each thing to remember was linked in the mind of the orator with places. The speech was given while recalling that particular walk. The places along the walk path were mnemonics for the item in the speech.
Selecting mnemonics is necessarily a personal task. If I suggest that you permanently use the sight of your first home as a mnemonic, you might eventually tire of it - particularly if your first home is something you would really rather forget. It could not be very useful to adopt a mnemonic that makes you feel bad whenever you think of it. You will need many mnemonics. There is no chance that someone other than yourself could appropriately specify a large collection of mnemonics for you that are neutral or positive and yet vivid in your past experience. If a large list is discovered or suggested because the associations are common or related to your work, you will need to go through them to identify and replace or modify those which are likely to be forgotten. Please regard any examples I might offer as provisional, temporary, and definitely slated for replacement.
We are often confronted by the need to remember numbers. Here are some common mnemonics: Zero can be associated with the sight of any circular object. One might be any straight vertical object or structure, such as a telephone pole or a fence post or desk paper nail or a thin person standing. Five might be the smell and bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume, or any pentagon. Seven-wire cable is common in the electrical wiring industry. A central wire is surrounded by six other wires forming a hexagon around the central wire. The wire is twisted to form the cable. Your particular experience and knowledge determines what is memorable to you.
Associating each letter of the alphabet with its number in order is a good idea. Did you know that J is the tenth letter or that T is the twentieth? The general solution to having the appropriate mnemonic that you need at the moment it is to have a lot of them. The more you know, the faster you can learn. Make a habit of appreciating the mnemonic value of the facts, events, sensations, objects and actions that you encounter. Make connections.
The examples in the right-hand column include a color square for each number where 0 = Black; 1 = Brown; 2 = Red; 3 = Orange; 4 = Yellow; 5 = Green; 6 = Blue; 7 = Violet; 8 = Grey; and 9 = White. They represent the electrical color code for the numbers. This is something that you may not have in your experience. If it is not to your liking, it will not help your recall and you should exclude it when making your own lists. If it is of interest, by all means, learn it and use it.
Associating the letters of the alphabet with their numbers in order is a very good thing to do. The letters and the numbers each constitute an ordered set. You don't need to associate the letter Z with the number 26 with any mnemonic that I may suggest. You should find your own. I will tell you mine as an example: B is number 2. F is number six. BF means Best Friend (and a particular best friend to me). Maybe that isn't best for you. The method here is to find experiences in your past that are pleasant and vivid that can be abbreviated with two letters. Breeze at the Dock could be used by ignoring the words connecting the nouns. This would be a 24 or the letter X. It is all for nought if a "breeze at the dock" means nothing to you.
Consider the happy circumstance of having associated many ordered sets with each other. The planet Mars is the fourth planet. You might know the name of the fourth U. S. President. You might know quite a number of things that are fourth in order. These are potentially a lot of associations that could be applied on the spot to information requiring the recall of 4. Once many ordered sets are prepared, there are many more associations you might spontaneously make while being given some new information.
Your existing preparation is responsible for your success in remembering new information. You think of the world in categories, and you have a lot of neutral and fond memories that you appropriately tie to your new experiences. More preparation will enhance your memory, but first, you need to be familiar with ways of consciously linking them to each other.
Many mnemonists form bizarre and emotionally evocative links between items in a series. These links are intended to be quick. Keep in mind that they can be discarded later when the informational context is fully realized or your use of the information becomes routine. Uniqueness makes any mental link more memorable than it would otherwise be. Your links do not need to be crazy in order to be unique. Some people resist crazy links as a general approach. Links only need to be unusual, unexpected, especially meaningful, or especially vivid. For example, A recipe may require many ingredients and actions taken in a very specific order. Once you have mnemonic associations for each of these ingredients, it's time to link them together. If you link them as an ordered set, the order of including the ingredients is made clear. If you must mix the spices with the oil and water before applying the mixture to the vegetables, you might imagine shaking a jar of spices (oil and water included) while walking toward or around the uncut vegetables. You don't always need to invent bizarre events, especially if you are somewhat intolerant of images that you regard as unpleasantly absurd. Your personal experience is vital, but your personality must also be taken into account. This is you, not a news report. This does not mean that you should avoid bizarre associations in cases where they appeal to you. The point is, that they must appeal to you.
People differ in their tolerance of thoughts about things that could never happen; however, if you are only a bit put off by imagining sightings or events that are unlikely in common experience, you could consider desensitizing yourself to this prohibition for the sake of expanding your options. It is not essential to do so. It only tends to abbreviate preparation. The more mnemonics you can easily prepare, the faster you can bring to mind something that will capture a new item in the moment. After all, linking is an arbitrary and personal business. A story that links things can often strike you as contrived, artificial or goofy - particularly if the material is not yours and not fashioned from your own experiences. Speaking as a person who was once caught without a pencil, the first time you make up a story in the privacy of your own mind that saves you from losing something you really value, you will likely become more tolerant of arbitrary stories. However, I would not recommend waisting your time trying to rid yourself of an actual revulsion.
Here is an example story:
1. An ice pond has a piece of lumber or a stick frozen in the ice in a vertical orientation with most of the stick being above the ice.
0. A hula hoop surrounds the stick, laying flat on the ice.
8. A figure eight is carved into the ice by a skater so that one of the loops of the figure eight surrounds the hula hoop and the stick.
4. An upside-down wooden chair is frozen in the ice in the other loop of the figure eight.
This might help you remember the number 1-0-8-4. In this case, the mnemonics are the stick, the hula hoop, the figure eight and the upside down chair. You may prefer other mnemonics for some or all of those numbers, but please notice that the way they are linked probably does not offend your sensibilities. Links do not need to be violent or disturbing in any way. This story is unusual and improbable, but not at all impossible. Notice also that you might conjure up such images much faster than you would be able to verbally tell the story.
Suppose you have some errands to do. You need to go to the department store and you need to meet a coworker named Alice for lunch. You want to tell her the password for her new job in the office.
The password is rendlesham1868.
From the department store, you need tweezers, a combination padlock, isopropyl alcohol, a new comb, and an empty spray bottle.
How would you remember this information without a machine or a notebook? What do you already know? Perhaps you know that ham is one of the generic forms in place names in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and that Rendles is the last name of some famous people in England. How fortunate would it be if you also knew something about Rendlesham Forest? Lacking any knowledge about the term rendlesham (and Google can be a great help), mnemonics for letters or syllables might be needed. Once again, the more you know, the easier it is to learn.
Let's take all this very slowly.
There are many one and two-digit numbers that are truly famous. Certain things happen when you turn 18. A guitar has 6 strings. Are any of these numbers particularly significant to you? Think back to your experience with one-digit and two-digit numbers. You encounter strings of numbers all the time.
Any two-digit number could be the age of some person you knew or some year of a particular event. You can easily establish many more mnemonics for numbers. Accumulating these mnemonic associations prepares you for retaining new information containing one or the other of the pair that is associated.
An inventory of your most valued memories might include numbers. If you search your past memories, you will surely also find many experiences that involve the letters. When they do, they can be useful memorizing ordered lists and associating ordered lists with each other.
You don't need to do this all at once. Over time, you can accumulate what you need (by recalling things) in the categories of interest to you. If you don't need to deal with numbers very frequently, it's a good idea to start with 0 through 9 and use only those for the present time. If you have a mnemonic for just each of these, and you know how to link them together, then any number is yours forever.
How will you use a story? You might use it only once to get through your lunch with Alice. If you need the number only infrequently, you might use the story only when you can't quite remember all the digits. Eventually, you won't need the story, although you may never forget it. Don't worry about that. You will never run out of space for remembered items.
Associating visual information with verbal information (names and numbers) is a good way (but not the only way) to get more than one metal process involved. The more visual scenes and tactile objects you can associate with numbers, letters, and syllables, the better.
Remembering what you need from the department store is a somewhat different problem. The mnemonics that were assigned to the numbers were each concrete objects that could be placed in a physical story - a story about their juxtaposition and interaction; but the items to be purchased from the department store are already concrete objects. Try linking these object yourself, in any order you like, with any added associations you like.
The items are tweezers, a combination padlock, isopropyl alcohol, a new comb, and an empty spray bottle.
Assuming that you are very familiar with the department store, tie the item you decide is to be first to find to the sight of that store. That will start the chain. This will take some time, but it gets easier and faster with practice.
The pictures in the right-hand column often show an object with no background or no real-world context. These features are best left to the moment when you are forming links. Objects can be placed in any scene, so you are free to use a background that is appropriate to the current place, time, motive, person, or occasion.
Associations can be used to bring thoughts together in your memory, but they can also be used to make things more distinct than they might at first seem. If you need to remember a pair of things or a larger number of things that seem very similar to you, the task becomes finding associations that are very different for each of the items in the group. Make a big thing out of whatever distinguishing features you can find among the items.
While building up your personal inventory of mnemonics, you will find that there are a great many associations that are widespread in the culture. The number 5 is routinely associated with any pentagon or the fingers on one hand. You may find that more than a few common associations are agreeable to you. You may have already internalized some of them and perhaps you find some of them emotionally neutral or even pleasing. It is useful to run such connections through your mind to see if you like them. The more the better. For instance, twelve, clock, midnight, noon, and a dozen eggs, is likely to be more neutral than "The Dirty Dozen" (a grim movie). The number 8 has been connected to a skater's figure 8, and to an hour glass. On the other hand, few people automatically think of the Galapagos Islands when they think of the number 13 (there are 13 Galapagos Islands).
The number 5893868 has three 8's in it. If you have many mnemonics that stand for 8, you might not use the same one for all of the 8's in a long number. This makes that particular number more unique in your memory. Also, having multiple choices makes it easier to come up with a plausible story for the number. The culture can help if you review it.
Fact Versus Fantasy
Distinguishing fact from fantasy is a natural facility that almost all of us have. You may have noticed that the process of creating conscious associations for recall is often dependent on this natural ability. The facts and real events in the world are discovered. Because you can tell the difference between what you discover and what you make up yourself, the associations you make are free to be fictional. This liberty greatly speeds the process of capturing information. As the new information is joined by more information related to it, the need for the stories and the arbitrary associations that you have used in the spur of the moment can melt away.
The Mnemonic Value of Order
In all walks of life there are lists. Many lists contain items in an order that is meaningful in a particular field of interest. Things can be listed in order of priority, date, time, or in alphabetical order or listed by number - all for some good reason. Composers of music often associate the first seven letters of the alphabet with the first seven positive integers. Dentists name each of 32 teeth with a number. We have the periodic table of elements, the U.S. presidents in numerical order, the States of the Union in the order of their inclusion, and thousands of other examples. The numbers we count with, the English alphabet and whatever ordered symbol collections we use to rank items in a list are potentially very helpful in the task of permanently learning new information. Ordered collections have much mnemonic potential.
Ordered lists will help you prepare for large numbers of associations.
In order to move new information from short-term memory to long-term memory, previously learned information must exist in your mind. This is the fundamental reason for preparation. Associations with preexisting information facilitates the move to long-term memory. The structure and diversity of this preexisting information affects the efficiency of the transfer. To see why lists are useful, once again consider the method of ancient Greece. You walk through a city taking a given path until you learn that path thoroughly. Only then are you prepared to associate new items with places along the path. However, when you use the ordered collections that you have learned, you already have a multitude of well-known places in your mind. You have learned the alphabet and you can count to a million whenever you get around to it. These ordered collections and others can be used to accumulate preparation. Here's how:
Let us suppose you have learned, for whatever reason, the following list:
0 The Sun 1 Mercury 2 Venus 3 Earth 4 Mars 5 Jupiter
Should you choose to do so, you may, on any occasion, use Sun as a mnemonic for 0, and Mars as a mnemonic for 4.
Let us also suppose that you have become familiar with this other ordered list:
0 A circular object 1 A vertical rod, pole, stick or the like 2 A pair of headlights on a car 3 A triangle 4 A square 5 A pentagon
You may, on any occasion, use any square as a mnemonic for 4 (or vise versa).
Now you have the number 4 associated with Mars, and the number 4 associated with square, but you also have Mars associated with square! This has a consequence which is seen when more lists are learned. If there were five numbered lists, the number 4 could be associated with any of five meanings, but that is not the most interesting effect. Each item in the forth row of the table below can readily be associated with any other item in that row! There would be ten of these extra associations (4 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 10). They may come to mind when you are scanning for a mnemonic, and you haven't put any extra work into those potential associations.
0 Sun Never Empty Circle Blank 1 Mercury January Hydrogen Rod A 2 Venus February Helium Headlights B 3 Earth March Lithium Triangle C 4 Mars April Beryllium Square D 5 Jupiter May Boron Pentagon E
Don't worry if a list starts at minus 20 or zero and the others don't. Don't worry if the lists are all different in length. They very well might be. The alphabet has only 26 letters, for instance. There is no entry for letter number 27. If a column does not have an entry for a given row, it makes no association there. The associations that are in that row will help you whenever they seem appropriate.
Networks, Forgetting and Beneficial Changes in the Long Term
After a few months of trying hard to enhance your memory skills (and succeeding more than you might have thought you would), you will inevitably notice that interest has an effect. Your interests tend to create large networks of associations while networks of associations having to do with subjects that you are less interested in will grow slower. More importantly, the large networks in your areas of interest grow faster if you make some choices about forgetting. You don't need to force yourself to commit to memory (for life) information that you don't value.
I know of two brothers who both did well in high school math. One brother can remember all of the math and the other does not remember even the Pythagorean theorem. The brother who is not big on math can remember the lyrics to almost every song he ever heard.
If you persistently apply the methods describe above and you deliberately select your interests, your ability to recall the information you value will be exceptional.
Construct images that associate A with 1. Do the same with B and 2, C and 3, D and 4, and so on up to Z and 26. When you can say the number associated with any arbitrarily letter selected, recite the alphabet backwards.
The first exercise I recommend requires a deck of playing cards and some imaginative preparation. The cards are 52 in number. In each of four suits (hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs) there are 13 cards (2 through 10, jack, queen, king, and ace).
Imagine a small neighborhood comprised of four houses. Two are on one side of a street and the other two houses are directly across that street from the first two. Create decorations or structures on the outside of these houses that indicate that one is the house of hearts, another is the house of spades, another is the house of diamonds, and another is the house of clubs.
Choose 13 unique places in each house. Each place is where a mnemonic for a card belongs.
Shuffle the deck of cards and ask a friend to select and hide one card from the deck. Ask your friend to show you each of the remaining cards, one at a time, until 51 cards are shown. Two or three seconds per card will be enough time to show each card. When a card is shown, it is placed face down.
Each time you are shown a card, recall the house according to the suit and mentally see the place in that house where the card mnemonic belongs and place it there. As the places in any given house become filled, place and X over that house or otherwise exclude it from consideration. When you have seen the 51 cards, notice which house remains and scan the places in that house. You will notice that one card has not been placed. Announce the name of the hidden card.
This exercise will show you the relationship between preparation and recall. Preparation may take time and effort, but the performance is done in real time with ease. It will also amaze your friend.
Using all 52 cards, have a friend show you each card in a shuffled order. Then name each of them in the order they were shown to you.
The menomics you use for each card must be known to you in advance, but you have the added task of linking each card to the next while you are being shown the cards. The first card must be tied to something in the room or perhaps your hand.
As you repeat this exercise on different occasions, you will find that it becomes easier to link a card to the next on the fly. This is because your inventory of association will have grown, and you will have considered the self-imposed constrains on your personal mnemonics and mnemonic stories.
At the end of each day, write a few words describing what you did or saw at various hours during the day. Try to recall what you wrote a day or two ago.
A number that is evenly divisible only by itself and 1 is called a prime number. The following table shows the prime numbers less than 100, each underlined with stars.
Prime Numbers Less Than 100 -------------------------------------- 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 * * * * 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 ** ** ** ** 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 ** ** 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 ** ** 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 ** ** ** 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 ** ** 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 ** ** 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 ** ** ** 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 ** ** 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 ** --------------------------------------
Research the names of facial features and associate each face you want to remember with a list of named features.
Find mnemonics for letter pairs where the second letter in the pair is a vowel. Find mnemonics for common word endings such as ed, er, able, ful, sion, tion, etc.
See Harry Lorayne's very successful memory books at
They are well worth reading. I would also encourage you to compare his techniques with those presented here.
For an in-depth study of the memory mechanisms of the brain I highly recommend Memory and the Human Lifespan at TheGreatCourses.com.