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Simple Memorizing Techniques

by Laura Lane(more info)

listed in mind matters, originally published in issue 56 - September 2000

"I have a memory like a sieve." Who hasn't heard that lament many times from people convinced they have a terrible memory? The fact is, what we remember often has more to do with factors such as our level of concentration, mental state, and emotional involvement than our innate ability.

Many of these factors are difficult to control, but there are several aspects of memory that can be easily influenced and used to our advantage when we want to memorize something.

First, memory works by association. Our mind is a complex web of interconnected thoughts and when one thing is called to mind, related concepts are automatically triggered. We can't hear the name 'Romeo' without thinking 'Juliet'. Drinking café au lait with a croissant immediately reminds us of Paris.

By the same token, when we want to learn something new, it is much easier if we already have a mental framework for it. This allows us to compare, contrast or otherwise connect the new information with what is already stored. If I have a good understanding of history and I am told the date of some event, I will plug it into the set of dates already in my memory. There is a good chance I will remember it. Without the framework, I'd probably forget it immediately.

A second aspect of memory that we can exploit is the fact that we remember images better than abstractions. Thus, a list of ten objects is easier to learn than a list of ten nonsense syllables.

Finally, information is more easily recalled when it has been structured or categorized. I can best remember where I have stored a certain book on my shelves if I have organized my books according to some system. Rhyming poetry is easier to remember than free verse because rhymes and rhythms give language a structure.

These are some of the principles behind the simple memory techniques called mnemonic devices (from Greek 'mindful'). These methods have been around for a very long time: some of them were an integral part of the ancient Greek art of rhetoric.

The idea behind most mnemonic devices is to create a mental framework which can then be used over and over again to store new information. One can think of it as having a set of 'hooks' on which to hang mental pictures. Once the hooks are in place, new pieces of information can be added at any time.

The trick, then, is to choose an appropriate framework to which new memories can be attached. Different types of hooks are useful for learning different types of information. This article will first look at systems for memorizing lists, then it will describe an easy method for remembering numbers, and finally, a way to recall names will be discussed.


My favourite method for remembering lists is based on the following simple rhyme:


one is a bun,
two is a shoe,
three is a tree,
four is a door,
five is a hive,
six are sticks,
seven is heaven,
eight is a gate,
nine is a line,
ten is a hen.


Once this rhyme has been learned, these ten objects can serve as hooks for memorizing virtually anything, for a whole lifetime. It is a small investment in time with a huge reward.

Here's how it works. Say you have a shopping list or a 'to do' list you want to memorize. You take the first object from the rhyme (a bun) and invent a picture in your mind connecting that with the first thing you want to remember. It helps to choose something unusual or funny since we remember striking images better than commonplace ones. In fact, if you have something you really need to remember, try imagining something shocking, obscene, or totally absurd. This may be overkill for a shopping list, but not for an important phone call. Spending a few seconds to visualize the picture clearly is also useful.

If the first item on your shopping list is milk, for example, take a moment to create a picture in your mind where milk and a bun are somehow connected. Maybe you imagine milk being poured on top of a bun, or a bun floating on a pool of milk. Then again, maybe you envision a milkman juggling with buns. Whatever suits your fancy will work.

Then you proceed down your list, associating each item with the next object from the rhyme. Once you have done this process for the whole list, you can recall it whenever you need it. Having arrived at the grocery store, for example, you simply repeat the rhyme, and – without any effort whatsoever – the item 'stored' at each hook will automatically pop into your mind.

What happens when you have finished with one list and want to learn another? Do you have to learn a new rhyme? Oddly enough, the same verse can be used over and over. Once you have finished with your shopping list – taken the items off the hooks, so to speak – the hooks are free to be reused. When you want to memorize a new list, you simply make new associations with the same old hooks.

To see how it works first hand, try the following experiment. Take a few minutes to memorize the above rhyme. Then, using the list below, create a picture linking each item on the list with the objects in the rhyme, in order. Let the image be as crazy as you want. Turn things upside down, break things, distort things – whatever your fantasy comes up with.

Then forget about it. Sometime tomorrow, take out a piece of paper and see if you can reproduce the list. All you have to do is repeat the rhyme, and the items on the list will suddenly be there too, without your having to make any effort to recall them.

Here is the list:


1. car
2. cheese
3. baby
4. envelope
5. apple
6. football
7. camera
8. sailboat
9. pencil
10. alarm clock.


There are of course many other mnemonic devices that can be used for remembering lists. In the 'loci method', another common technique, you choose a place you know very well – the route you take into town every day, for example. You travel along the path and pick out a number of salient landmarks: the petrol station on the corner, the cinema down the road, and so on. You memorize these, and they become your hooks. When you want to recall your list, you visualize each landmark in turn, thereby 'discovering' the item on the list at that location. It works equally well if you choose objects in your living room, going around the room in a circle: the lamp in the corner, the sofa, the clock on the wall. A similar method uses parts of the body, from head to foot.

Almost any series can serve as a set of hooks as long as you can remember it easily. The number of hooks you choose is up to you, but most people start with ten. With just a little practice in this method, memorizing lists becomes very simple.


Remembering numbers is one of the hardest things to do and yet it seems we are called on to learn more numbers all the time. We are constantly being given new personal identification numbers, for example, and we are admonished not to write them down.

Mnemonics can help here too. There is a system for memorizing numbers based on the fact that we can remember words more easily than numbers. How it works is that each digit, from 0 to 9, is given a consonant, preferably one that looks a little like the number. For example: 0 is D, 1 is T, 2 is N, 3 is M, 4 is H, 5 is S, 6 is G, 7 is L, 8 is B and 9 is P. Once this list has been learned by heart, the rest is easy.

To memorize a number, you take the letters that correspond to the numbers and make up a sentence where each word begins with the appropriate letter. Let's say you want to remember the number 3687. This would give you the letters M, G, B and L. Now your job is to make a sentence using four words that start with those letters. The more colourful the sentence, the easier it is to remember. A possible sentence for this number would be: 'Monkeys gargle with beer in London.' As you can see, only the main words in the sentence (the nouns and verbs) count.

The beauty of this system is that it can spark your sense of fun. I always find myself smiling when I go to my automatic teller to withdraw money and have to remember my PIN: my mnemonic sentence is 'Laura hates scratchy pyjamas.'


Finally, what about names? A popular technique for remembering names involves creating an image using whatever associations the name triggers. Say you meet someone named Michael Howard. You could free associate the sounds of his name and come up with 'microphone' and 'coward'. You could then envision him fearfully singing into a microphone. It helps to look closely at the person and observe their features as you form your image. Asking them to repeat the name, or repeating it yourself, also contributes to success. Then, the next time you see this person, the picture will come back, and along with it, the name.

All of this may sound like a lot of learning to do before you can even begin to memorize the things you want to remember, but really it only takes a short time to learn the system, and you can use it for the rest of your life.


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About Laura Lane

Laura Lane is a freelance journalist located in Germany. She has an MA in linguistics from the University of Tuebingen. Her main interests are intercultural communication, psychology, holistic medicine and general science topics. The workings of memory fascinate her because of her own experiences with forgetfulness.

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