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The Art of Memory



The Art of Memory -- Main File

The Art of Memory
by Edward Tanguay

After reading the impressive Memory Book by Harry Lorayne back in 1985, I became interested in memory techniques. With the help of Mr. Lorayne's methods, I have been able to memorize a deck of cards in a half hour, memorize 100 random objects in an hour, memorize the full text of the Declaration of Independence, and learn German vocabulary words at the rate of 50 per hour with a short-term memory recall of 80%. I would be interested in discussing methods of memorization with anyone who is doing research on memory or has developed similar abilities.

Below is a summary of the memory techniques that I have developed over the last 12 years.


Remembering is Easy, It's Recording Which is Difficult
The reason why we can't remember the name of that person we met yesterday is not because our memory is bad but because our recording is bad. If you didn't record it in your mind, you probably won't be able to remember it.

Recording is Story Creation
Which is easier to remember, the story of Little Red Riding Hood, or the number 78,938,263,023? Naturally the story is easier to remember because it is something concrete and meaningful which we humans can relate to. The number, on the other hand, is abstract and has little meaning to us in itself, and is therefore difficult to remember. The process of recording then is to turn abstract difficult-to-remember things into concrete easy-to-remember stories. This recording process is done in two steps: symbol substitution and story creation.

Story Creation
If the items you have to remember are physical objects, all you have to do to remember them in order is to create a story with them. Do you think you could remember this 10-object shopping list in order?

  1. cheese
  2. milk
  3. bread
  4. hamburger
  5. ketchup
  6. mayonnaise
  7. manila envelopes
  8. computer disks
  9. paper clips
  10. stapler

Let's try it with the story creation technique. Read this story:

As you walk into the supermarket, the manager spins around and throws a huge hunk of stinky Swiss cheese right at your face. As it is flying toward you, out of the cheese holes, milks start spraying like a garden sprinkler. As the milk hits the wall, it turns into a loaf of bread and all the slices fall all over the floor. On one of the slices, there is raw, rotten hamburger. The manager makes you eat that slice. As you eat it, the hamburger starts to bleed ketchup out your mouth and down your white shirt. The ketchup then turns to mayonnaise so you can no longer see it on your white shirt, and you are happy. Out of the mayonnaise on your shirt, however, large, brown manila envelopes start to grow and millions of customers start coming up to you, plucking the envelopes off of you. As they pluck them off, the envelopes turn into diskettes, so they stick them in the disk drives of the lap tops they are all holding. Inside the laptops, the diskettes, turn to paper clips and when you shake the laptops you can hear the paperclips jingling around. You open up one of the laptops, take out a paper clip, it turns into a stapler, so you throw it at the manager and when it hits his face, it staples his nose shut.

There. That's even better than a Salvador Dali painting! Now, can remember all ten items in order? First you walk into the supermarket and the manager throws a piece of stinky Swiss cheese at you . . . then what happens? Close your ideas and see if you can remember the story.

Were you able to remember all 10? If you could, then you can also remember 20 objects or even 50 or 100, in order. You just need to keep the story going. There are important elements to this kind of story telling:

I have given talks at the beginning of which people swore they could not remember more than five items in a row. At the end of the talk, many of them were able to memorize up to 30 objects in a row with very little effort, just by using this story creation technique.

Symbol Substitution
Many things we have to remember during the day, however, are not concrete objects such as cheese and milk, but are abstract items such as points you have to mention in a speech. Before we create a story to remember them, we simply need to substitute each point with a symbolic concrete object. Let's do another memory exercise. Here is a list of 10 things which one might have to remember for a speech, and a concrete object which can be used in the story:

Symbol Substitution

Abstract concept Concrete Object Symbol
Introduction of new employee the actual employee
The moving of our offices has been postponed moving truck
Budget reports are due report with big dollar sign on it
Microsoft Word courses are start today the big, blue "W"
Inspection will be on Friday detective with frying pan (Friday)
Intranet instruction starts on Monday a net around the moon (Monday)
keys need to be returned keys
Fill out questionaire question mark
All offices are now non-smoking. smashed cigarette
Company picnic on Saturday. red and white checkered planet with Saturns rings around it (Saturday)

Now, just as we did with the objects in the shopping list, make a story with all of the objects in the above table.

As you practice substituting symbols and creating stories, you will improve your skill and the process will get faster. When you recall your stories, you will notice that some symbols and links you created jump immediately back into your mind while others may take awhile or do not come back at all. Analyze what types of links and symbols work best for you. Remember that recording is an personal process. What makes me think of the company picnic on Saturday may not be what makes you think of it.

How to Remember Numbers
In the last example, the symbol "moon" stood for Monday, "frying pan" for Friday, and "Saturn" for Saturday. That is easy enough. But what about numbers? Numbers are about as abstract as you get. What distinguishes, for example, the number 18 from the number 23? What object would you choose for 18 and what object for 23?

Before you answer, let me remind you of something we all had to do as children. Do you remember walking around your house repeating over and over "7 x 7 = 49, 7 x 8 = 56, 7 x 9 = 63." This was a lot of rote memory and probably made your head hurt. But once you had your times tables memorized, you were able to do complicated math equations in your head.

The same holds true for memory. The answer to the above question regarding which object I would choose for the number 18 and 23 is for me quite clear. The number 18 is a dove and the number 23 a name tag. The number 43 is a ram and the number 52 is a lion. Each number has a corresponding object for me because I have learned my consonant table. Just as after learning your times table you can do complicated math in your head, learning your consonant table allows you to do complicated memory recording in your head. Here is the consonant table which you have to remember:

Consonant Table
Number Consonant Sound
0 s,z, soft c as in cite
1 t,d
2 n
3 m
4 r
5 l
6 sh, ch, or soft g as in george
7 k, hard c as in cat, hard g as in goat
8 f, v
9 p,b

Using the table, to create an object for a number, you have to "sound the number out" then fill it with vowels to create a word. So, for instance, 18 is a t or d sound followed by a f or v sound. I choose dove. Other options are dive (a diver) or Dave (if you know someone named Dave). The number 23 is then n followed by m. I choose name (so that I have a concrete object, I think of a name tag). Another option is gnome (a type of fairy)--only the pronounced sounds count so you don't count the g sound. The number 43 is an r followed by an m. I choose ram. Other options are ream, Rome, room, and rhyme. Remember, you need to find a concrete object to symbolize these. The number 52 is an l followed by an n. I choose lion. Other options are lane, loan, lean, and lawn.

Once you know your consonant table by heart, all kinds of numbers become easier to remember. A phone number such as 716-7823 become "cat (71), check (67), phone (82), ma (3)." Make a quick story with these objects and you have it. The more you practice, the better you get. The goal is so that whenver you see the number 82 you think of a phone, the same way whenever you see 7 x 7, you think of 49.

How to Remember Numbered Items
Earlier you learned how you can memorize a list of 10 items on a shopping list. But what if you are in a situation where you need to know what the 8th item is? Or when someone mentions the object "hamburger," you want to know which number it corresponds to. To to this, you need to first learn your consonant table, then choose a familiar place to represent each number. I have memorized a specific place for each number from 1 to 100. Let me tell you the first ten to give you the idea of what you need to do to assign a place to each number from one to ten:

How to Remember Numbered Items
Number Symbol Derived from Consonant Chart Place
1 tie Room where I learned to tie my first tie.
2 Noah Noah's Ark
3 ma My mother in her garden.
4 rye Rye bread in the kitchen where I used to work in Hannover, Germany.
5 law A parking lot in Florida where I had a run-in with the law (!) one Spring Break.
6 shoe The closet where one of our cats peed on my father's shoe when I was young (a family drama).
7 cow A friend's farm where I grew up which had cows.
8 ivy The place where I was first infected with poison ivy.
9 bee A tree under which a friend of mine were playing when I was young. He saw a bee and flipped out. I found out afterwards that he was allergic to bees and would have to go to the hospital if one stung him.
10 toes Playing "toes" with someone in high school (don't ask!)

As you can see, these places are very personal. They should be, as the more personal they are and the more vivid the memories are of them, the easier they are to remember. Try it yourself. Using the consonant table, memorize a corresponding keyword which represents a familiar place for each of the numbers from 1 to 10.

Now, let's memorize our shopping list from earlier by putting each object into its respective numbered place. So the cheese goes into the room where I first learned to tie my tie. Instead of trying to tie a tie, I am trying to tie cheese and my fingers are getting all smelly. The second object is milk. I pour it into Noah's Ark, so much of it that Noah's Ark sinks, along with all the animals and Noah himself, leaving just a white cloud of milk and swimming animals in the ocean. (Notice that I am using a unique characteristic of each object in my mini-stories here: cheese is smelly, milk is white. Otherwise, when you try to remember your story, you will remember that you poured something into the ark, but you just can't remember what.) Continue on yourself with objects 3 through 10, putting them in your familiar places. When you are finished, have a friend call out random numbers from 1 to 10. When he says "2", convert it to the consonant "n" and think of "Noah," then think, oh yeah, I dowsed his ship with milk, so the corresponding object is milk! Also, let your friend call out random objects. When he says "milk," you think of Noah, reduce the word to the consonant "n", which leads you to the number 2!

Back in 1985 when I learned this, I was commuting to work about 30 miles each way, so while I was driving, I would count through the number 1 to 100 going from place to place in my mind. If you commute or have waiting time during your day, you can memorize 100 places for 100 numbers in at least a month without spending any extra time at all. Once you have memorized them, you can easily remember long lists of any sort, be it clients, students, states, presidents, superbowl winners, things that occur to you while jogging, whatever, just by placing the object you want to remember in those familiar places of yours. It's quite powerful, and the more you do it, the better you get.

How to Remember Names and Faces
You usually see someone before you are introduced to them. Before you are introduced to them, look at their face and identify the one unique thing about it. Ask yourself, what is the one thing that will come to my mind the next time I see their face? Let's say that you are at a party and you see this guy (moi) to the right. What is the one thing about his face that is unique? You decide that it is that slight smirk on the left side of his mouth. Then, you are introduced to him and he says his name is Edward Tanguay. You immediately think of someone you know named Edward and stick him in the right corner of this guy's mouth. I immediately think of Edward Abbey, author of The Monkey Wrench Gang. Now start your story machine. Edward Abbey is standing in the corner of this guy's mouth trying to sell his book. Now break up the last name "Tanguay" pronounced (TANG-way) into two objects: a bottle of Tang instant breakfast drink and a bathroom scale (from weigh). So Edward Abbey is standing in the corner of this guy's mouth trying to sell his book, but his book dissolves through his hand into orange colored Tang and forms a bathroom scale on the floor so the author can weigh himself after the loss of his book. So, there you have a quick story. Review the story quickly packing it with unique characteristics of the objects and other ways to strengthen the links. Any story you make which is reasonably vivid, you should be able to remember for at least the rest of the day. If you are in a position where you are meeting people constantly and need to remember their names and faces, take a break every now and then and write down the names of the people you met during the last hour.

How to Remember Historical Dates
I remember my mother telling me that when she thought of history, she imagined a time line from the beginning of time to 1930, then it made a 90 turn to the left and continued on. She never knew why this was the case, or why precisely 1930, but that was simply the way she had always conceived of historical time.

When I became interested in memory techniques, I remembered this curious aberration of my mother's conception of time. I supposed that because her time line bent at 1930, it was easier for her to keep track of dates which happened around the year 1930. For instance, the stock market crash was right before the bend and the depression followed the bend. Herbert Hoover was president during the bend, and so on.

My next idea was, if bending the time line made historical dates easier to remember, why not put many bends in the time line? And that is what I did.

As you can see in the diagram, my historical time line bends every decade. This makes it much easier for me to remember when events happened in history, when people lived, and when various eras occured. Something that happened on a decade corner is different than something that happens on the straight-away. World War II happened going up the line while World War I happened going from left to right.

The way you bend your time line is arbitrary. The important aspect is that it has bends in it which distinguish one part of it from another

How to Learn Foreign Language Vocabulary

When I began learning German in 1989, I found that the memory techniques I had learned were well-suited for learning vocabulary and short phrases. Using the methods, I could learn about 50 vocabulary items per hour with almost 80% short-term recognition. The way I did it was to create a concrete symbol for each German syllable, then stringing the symbols together into vivid stories. For instance, the frequent German syllable ver (pronounced fair) was symbolized by a ferris wheel. Let me give you a few examples of how I transformed German words into mneumonic stories:

German word: vertreiben
Pronounced: [fair-TRIBE-ben]
Meaning: to drive something away
Concrete symbols: fair: ferris wheel
tribe: tribe of Africans
Ben: my former boss in college
Mneumonic story: First, I think of a situation in which I would use the word vertreiben. For instance, if I am telling someone about the time that I chased away the cat when it wanted to come into the kitchen. Now, I think of myself chasing away the cat, but instead of chasing it away, I grab ahold of a ferris wheel (actual size) and throw it spinning at the cat. Out of the spinning seats of the Ferris wheel jump a tiny tribe of Africans with painted faces and they jump on the cat. The chief of the tribe has my college boss "Ben" tied on his back, unstraps him, and uses him to bludgeon the cat to death.

Now, later that day I am telling a story about how our boss chased us out of the dining room the day before because the guests were arriving. I think about similiar situations of chasing away and remember the cat. The story starts in my head and the words fair, tribe, and ben come back to me one after the other.

For words which do not have an obvious corresponding object with which to remember them, you simply have to be creative and pay attention to what your mind thinks of first when you hear the German word. For example, for the German word jetzt, pronouced [yetst], use the symbol: package of yeast, or even a packed of West cigarettes, or anything you think of which sounds simliar to [yetst]. The important aspect is to observe what your mind naturally thinks of next, as this will probably be what it thinks of the next time you encounter the word. A constant review of your links will make certain that your mind jumps onto the appropriate link when you need to remember a word or phrase.


Memorizing Texts: The Ol' Greek Familiar Place Method
One of the easiest ways to remember a long text is to use an old trick the Greeks used for their public speeches. You imagine yourself in a familiar place such as your living room and you say your first sentence. Then move into your kitchen and say the second sentence. Then move out to your driveway and say the third sentence, and so forth. You can even string the words along the couch, over the fireplace, and around the lamp. The more familiar the place is to you, the more details you have to relate to the words of your text.

One year I bet someone that I could memorized the Declaration of Independence in a month. To do this, I used this old Greek method. I began at Independence hall in Philadelphia, which I had visited, and strung words through the city of Philadelphia at places where I used to work and go to movies and shop. Then the text took off around the country stopping in cities and places I was familiar with, finally ending up in Colorado in my home town skipping around town. To remember the text, I just took a trip around the United States remembering the words which I had strung out there.

Apply These Methods to Anything You Want to Remember

The concepts that I have presented here (symbol substitution, story creation, consonant table, and the Greek method) can be used to memorize almost any kind of data. Being interested in card tricks as a child, I applied these methods to playing cards. I assigned a consonant sound to each suit of cards and made then assigned an object having the corresponding consonant sounds of the suit and number of card (e.g. hearts has the h sound and 1 was a t or d sound, so the Ace of Hearts was a hat). After about two weeks, I could memorize the positions of a deck of 52 cards in a half hour. If the Ace of Hearts (hat) was the third card (3 = mother in her garden), then I just think about my mother planting hats in her garden and growing hat trees and everyone in the neighborhood coming to buy hats from her. Now the next time I think of the third card, I think of 3, which is my mother in her garden, which makes me think of a hat, which is the Ace of Hearts. It's as simple as that.


Short and Long Term Memory

The length which you will be able to recall your mneumonic stories is a matter of how strong and vivid you make the links from one object to the next. The same people who can recount whole story lines from the 1960s Star Trek series can't tell you what they did on Sunday last week. This is because we remember what is interesting, amazing, unbelievable, or traumatic (where were you when the Space Shuttle exploded?). The more interesting, vivid, colorful, violent, funny, stupid, idiotic, crazy and lively you make your stories, the longer you will be able to remember them.

Reviewing your stories often will strengthen their links as well. Soon the number 34 will make you think of a lawn mower just as thinking of Hawaii makes you think of Honolulu. It's just a matter of pounding paths through your synapses.

So, happy pounding! Please write me if you have any questions or comments.


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