Hack Your Memory

Imagine a fire hydrant being lifted high into the air by a large helium balloon. It goes higher and higher, but suddenly gas starts to leak out of the nozzle, which makes it sound like it’s trying to talk… but with a distinct lisp. A colorful bumblebee then lands on the balloon, licks it, and says “really yum!”  Then the bee takes out its stinger and bores on to the balloon. It pops, causing the fire hydrant to come crashing down. It smashes into a military jeep causing a massive explosion… as if it had been destroyed by a car bomb. Fortunately, the owner of the jeep, a general, was out on his rowing boat at the time. He likes to row his boat at night, and is known as the “night-rowing general” around the base. He was rowing with a bit more exertion than usual, and had to don an oxygen mask to help him breath. But the mask was full of fluoride, which turned his teeth bright neon colors.

You’re probably wondering what the hell you just read. Maybe you’re thinking the author had a stroke. Has the site been hacked? Maybe it’s a prank? What if I told you that you’ve just memorized the first 10 elements of the periodic table.

The Night-Rowing-General via Memorize Academy
  • Fire hydrant – Hydrogen
  • Helium balloon – Helium
  • Lisp – Lithium
  • Bee says “really yum” – Beryllium
  • Bee “Bores on” – Boron
  • Car bomb – Carbon
  • The night-rowing-general – Nitrogen
  • Oxygen mask – Oxygen
  • Fluoride – Florine
  • Neon teeth – Neon

Much of your memory is stored in the form of associations. Encoding things you need to remember into a silly story takes advantage of this fact. The memory of a ‘night-rowing-general’ is already in your head. You can see him in the theater of your mind… rowing his boat under a black sky… the silver stars on his green hat reflecting the moonlight. Associating this visual representation of the night-rowing-general with the term ‘Nitrogen’ is very easy for your brain to do.

You’re probably already familiar with this type of learning. Does “Bad Boys Run Over Yellow Gardenias Behind Victory Garden Walls” ring a bell?  It’s nothing new. In fact, storing memories in the form of mental images was the preferred memorization method of the scholars in ancient times. Today, it has allowed people to perform staggering feats of memorization. Want to know how [Akira Haraguchi] was able to memorize 111,700 digits of Pi?

Sherlock Holmes often uses a memory palace. Image source: Chess News: Memory Techniques: Memory Palace, from Roman times to today

The Memory Palace

It turns out that it’s really easy for the human brain to create and store mental images. The more silly and outrageous the image is, the easier it is to store. But what do you do when you have a lot of things to memorize? We know how to turn information into silly images, but how do you keep the images organized? There are two ways – One is to fit the images into a story like we did with the periodic table above. A better, more efficient technique is to store them in what is known as a Memory Palace.

The Method of Loci is the official name for the technique of storing images in a mental placeholder. This mental placeholder is a place that you must know well. A place that you can stroll through in your mind with little to no effort. The easiest place for most people is their childhood home. This is the place where you will store your images… your memory palace. When you want to recall the stored information, you simply walk through your memory palace and view your images. Let’s begin with a trivial example of memorizing a short list of parts for an upcoming project –

  • Raspberry Pi 3
  • Six Neopixels
  • Two Red LEDs
  • Two Nema stepper motors
  • 20×4 LCD

The first goal is to encode the parts list into images that are already in your brain. The second goal is to store the images in your memory palace. Before we start, keep in mind that the images need to already be memorized. For instance, you can’t try to associate “Nema” with “Norma” Jean if you have no mental image of Norma Jean. And remember that the more silly, outrageous, ludicrous, exaggerated, etc. the images are, the easier they will be to recall. Let’s start –

A three-foot-wide Rasperry Pi sitting on the dining room table. Imagine steam rising from it and try to smell it. Make it make your taste buds water.

Mmmm Raspberry Pi via Pillsbury

Keanu Reeves flies in through a large window in your kitchen. He holds out both of his hands – palms up. His right hand has six fingers, each fingertip has been replaced with a neopixal that’s strobing different shades of blue. His left hand has only two fingers, both of the fingertips are glowing red LEDs.

As you walk up the stairs, you see a family member. Their eyes have been replaced with stepper motors. Imagine large yellow flags on the ends of each shaft. Each motor is spinning outward and the flags are sweeping their hair outwards causing it to brush up against the walls.

In your room, your TV has been replaced by a giant 20×4 LCD. It’s on, and in each character’s place, there is a screen that’s playing different sporting channels.

And there you have it. Now this part list is forever etched into your memory. Keep in mind that memory palaces can be any place you know well. If you need a larger one, all you need to do is explore a new place until you know it. You can even make memory palaces in VR.

Memory Champions

Notice that you can walk through your palace in any order. The information is stored asymmetrically. This is a key advantage over the story method (like in our periodic table example), which is linear. When you’re storing large amounts of information, having the ability to backpedal and deviate becomes necessary for accurate recall. As you can imagine, people have pushed the method of Loci to its limits. It’s how people can remember 100,000 digits of Pi, the order to several decks of cards, strings of binary numbers, or just about anything in only minutes.

In the book Moonwalking with Einstein, [Joshua Foer] (to remember this name, think of him joshing you and then breaking into four pieces), writes about his journey into the world of memory athletes and how he became one himself. In competition, many competitors wear large earmuffs and glasses that have been blacked out except for a small pinhole. Concentration is critical when you’re walking through large, elaborate memory palaces.

If you’re interested in further research on the method of Loci, I encourage to read Joshua’s book. Have any memory hacking techniques of your own? Please share in the comments!

Sources

Moonwalking With Einstein, by Joshua Foer. ISBN-978-0143120537

Memorize the Periodic Table, by Kyle Buchanan. ISBN-978-0987564627

 

78 thoughts on “Hack Your Memory

      1. I would imagine that the mechanics behind both methods are similar. I also prefer taking notes by writing, because I can envision the words on the page. I do not have this same recall when I type my notes.

        Same thing with programming though – I can remember functions which I wrote much better than a snippet I pulled from the web and spent twice as long modifying to make it work in my own code

    1. I just remembered the first 20 back in high school from the following – Silly but it worked

      HHeLiBeB – Remembered these straight up
      CNOF – ‘See nof’
      NeNa – ‘Nina’
      MgAl – ‘Magal’
      SiPS – self explanatory
      ClArKCa – ‘Clark ah’

    1. Not unless you generalize synesthesia as associating unrelated things with each other, in which case I guess so. But synesthesia is more like the fact that the element flourine is purple to me, because the letter F is purple to me. In fact all the elements have colors that are permanently related to what letters they begin with. Other things with colors include the nunbers, the days of thr week, the months of the year, and pretty much all abstract concepts.

  1. Does “Bad Boys Run Over Yellow Gardenias Behind Victory Garden Walls” ring a bell? Why yes, yes it does. It rings the bell that says that political correctness has run amuck.

          1. Dan if you say that line to anyone of any age they’ll be offended. If you say it to a woman they’ll think you’re a creep because it’s particularly offensive to women. This is why you’re still single.

          2. There’s a difference between “here is a bad-taste mnemonic” with “I advocate rape of young girls”. If somebody’s going to confuse the two and end up getting offended, I’m probably not gonna get on with them so it’s for the best they apparently don’t find me attractive.

        1. The only offending thing here is the pretense that women would be that easily offended by a somewhat juvenile joke. Women are not delicate flowers that emotionally bruise at first sight.

        1. I think that being offended is what makes it stick, so that’s why it’s effective. The new one is impossible to remember for me… Much like that wall of LSD-induced nonsense above.

        2. My biology teacher taught us the taxonomic domains with “King Phillip Came Over From Germany Stoned.” A mnemonic for the first five U.S. presidents (from TV Funhouse): “Why Are Japanese Men Miniature?” The layers of the OSI model (seen on Reddit): “Please Do Not Touch Superman’s Private Area”.

          While I’m not offended by any of these (being neither Japanese nor Superman) I do find them pretty memorable. They’re especially effective in contrast to the method that was the subject of this article. The technique isn’t new — I read a book about it when I was a kid, and was enough of a dork to try it, for about a week. It’s far too much mental effort to expend to learn something that could easily be looked up — save your brainpower for something a computer can’t easily do.

        1. Nice I like it way more than that victory garden bull shit. I mean seriously victory gardens haven’t existed for 72 years, and they never had gardenias in them, just fruit and vegetables.

        1. I remember in High school, the teacher had everyone in the class make up a paragraph to help remember the resistor color codes, Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet Gray, White.
          There was a rather ‘feminine’ guy in our class, so ours was:
          “Big boobs ruin our young green blood, very gay Wayne”.
          Not only did I remember the colors, but also remembered the paragraph- that was almost 40 years ago.

      1. A more young person friendly version (and the one I was taught as a boy) is Bye Bye Rosie, Off You Go, Birmingham Via Great Western*. Still works for me.

        [*] Non-UK readers might have to Google “Great Western Railway”.

      2. Got that one at the Naval Academy in the 1970s, along with ELI the ICE man. Outside of electronics, we had ’em in chemistry (Leo the lion goes “ger”) and navigation (Can Dead Men Vote Twice/True Virgins Make Dull Companions, Even red nuns have odd black cans, Red right returning). The last two aren’t acronyms or initialisms, though.

    1. Really though, I’ve never seen a need for any mnemonic for that particular sequence. It’s a rainbow, with black and brown before it, and gray and white after it. If you have trouble remembering that, you probably have bigger problems, like not knowing where your house is.

      1. +1. Exactly.
        If you learned–in General Science, perhaps–the “man’s name” mnemonic device for remembering the colors of the rainbow, Roy G. Biv, then you also know the electronic-component color code. (with the extremes, black and white, being at the ends)

    1. This is most definitely a hack. Generally a story is not used in this manner, and using something in a way not that it is not normally used is pretty much the definition of a hack.

  2. These examples seem a little contrived and impractical to me For example, wouldn’t a mnemonic of HHLBBCNOFN been easier for remembering the elements? I’ve found a better use case for techniques like this when I just need to remember one thing. For example, if I needed to get milk on the way home, I’d just visualize a giant snake in the road that forces me to turn in the grocery store. Once I’m there, its easier to remember why.

  3. When I want to remember stuff I struggle with (particularly numbers,) I usually apply a melody to them. It’s like I’m humming a song in my head, but each note is a word, syllable, or number. Kinda like “eight six seven five three oh nine” from every phone operator’s favorite song.

    Sometimes it’s not a note though, but rather the cadence of how I repeat back the string in my head. It works amazingly for me, given I’m so music oriented. Mnemonics are too language oriented for how I think.

    1. From an episode of “Cheers”:
      Coach helping Sam study for a Geography test:
      (Singing to the tune of When the Saint Come Marching In)
      “Al-ba-ni-a, Al-ba-ni-a,
      You border on the A-dri-atic,
      Your land is ve-ry mount-ain-ous,
      And your chief export is Chrome!”

      1. Just because people said it through history doesn’t make it wrong– in fact it’s further evidence it’s correct. All the inventions you listed reduced our reliance on memory. Technology has replaced it.

    1. Doubtful, different schemas perhaps. Certainly more easily than many modem desk jockies but I doubt the top half of today were any worse. Just like a mediocre marathon or sprint time today would take gold in any Olympics prior to 1960, sport and memory are dependant on nutrition, particularly in juvenile years.

      Chimps however will destroy even the best in a timed game of memory (remembering matching cards laid face down).

  4. I find that mnemonics are often very useful – usually musical ones. I vividly remember the alphabetical order of the 50 United States because of a song I learned in first grade. Can’t remember where most of them are though.

    That leads to an interesting point – most people also fall on a spectrum of a phenomenon called “aphantasia”. Those of us with a high level cannot form mental pictures and are often surprised in adulthood when we discover that the “mind’s eye” is not a figure of speech and that everyone else can make mental pictures. The memory palace is utterly useless for me, for example, but I could describe in words exactly where I last saw that thing I know was on my desk four years ago.

    The thing about remembering absurd things is cool though. I remember a song I was trying to learn as a child, but there is ONE word that changed from verse to verse. Someone told me the words in question are in reverse alphabetical order and I never made that mistake again.

  5. My chemist teacher made us remember by remembering a couple of names
    Mr H.Helybebcnof
    And ms Nenamgalsips clarkca
    Which is the first 20 elements of the periodic table in case you’re wondering. After 25 years I still remember :)

    1. We had a really crappy one for the first 20 (?) presidents in high school: Waj mm jj vht ptf pbl jgh.

      There’s some stuff in there about John Quincy Adams — I think he’s one of the J’s. You have to read it out to really appreciate how bad it is. But repetition of something stupid worked, and I got them all.

  6. Interesting idea… doesn’t work for me at all… Now, on the other hand. Hire a big name movie studio and make a movie out of it, I’ll memorize that like nobodies business. I just don’t have a good enough of an imagination for that kind of thing to work. Never have. poor me… all the engineering skills in the world, and no imagination to build something new. Plus words on a page are rarely ever more than words on a page. That’s why I don’t like reading. It’s boring looking at words on a page for hours.

    Seriously though… does anyone have any tricks for remembering things for people that can’t imagine stuff?

  7. I’ve had some to help me in the past. Way back when toy gun was still allowed in elementery school, I had trouble spelling a certain big word until someone taught me “A Rat In The House Might Eat Tom’s Ice Cream”

  8. >Imagine a fire hydrant being lifted high into the air by a large helium balloon. It goes higher and higher, but suddenly gas starts to leak out of the nozzle, which makes it sound like it’s trying to talk… but with a distinct lisp. A colorful bumblebee then lands on the balloon, licks it, and says “really yum!” Then the bee takes out its stinger and bores on to the balloon. It pops, causing the fire hydrant to come crashing down. It smashes into a military jeep causing a massive explosion…

    At first, I thought this was about mushrooms or something similar…

  9. Mother Very Thoughtfully Made A Jelly Sandwich Under No Protest
    ….worked fine until that bastard Neil deGrasse Tyson came along

    SOH-CAH-TOA

    Roy G. Biv

    Oh, for Christ’s sake, just memorize the stuff, without all this crap, it’s not rocket surgery.

    And there *IS* a certain advantage to memorizing this stuff as a linear list. It’s *NOT* a random collection.

    The planets appear in order from the sun.

    The visible spectrum is according to wavelength.

    Once you know the spectrum its easy to add “dark” stuff at one end and “bright” stuff at the other to get he resistor color code…which is ALSO in order.

    _Visualize_ the periodic table wil help you memorize that first 10 (or 20) with the advantage that you’ll have the Atomic Numbers as well.

    This mnemonic stuff is mostly a waste of time.

  10. What if I told you that you’ve just memorized the first 10 elements of the periodic table.

    What if I told you after reading all these comments I’ve already forgot the story? Something about a fire truck ?

    1. Same here. These things never much worked for me and frankly I find all the apparent infatuation of (mostly US?) folks with “clever” mnemonic sentences and words incredibly childish. You really want to remember it? Then use it daily, or write it down!

  11. Repetition sets memory in every stage of your short term and long term memory. It has a rate of decay. The part nobody understands is how to recall the least frequented memory..

    SuperMemo researchers actually cracked this long ago..

  12. Being one blessed/cursed with an eidetic memory…I really wish there was a similar trick to forget. My personal relationships have suffered the most (with most everything else in life, it’s a blessing). An eidetic memory+a compulsory need for recollection to be factually accurate, does not bode well with women…whom, from my experience possess a type of emotional memory, and what “actually happened” doesn’t matter as much as the resulting feelings…I’m also a “compulsive-corrector”…they hate that too (I’m better at letting stuff that doesn’t matter slide these days..although I have to consciously not correct lol)
    Currently at age 33, I can remember most everything all the way back to about 3 years old (I thank God I don’t have hyperthymesia, “normal” eidetic memory is bad enough). I’ve never had to label parts as I tore apart and reassembled cars and other intricate things…In fact, by the age of ten I had taken enough different machines apart that I could reassemble almost anything without being the one who took it apart. (I’ve always had a mechanical predisposition).
    Interestingly enough, I have a hard time memorizing numbers…that’s it, not printed sentences or verbal ones…only numbers. I can visualize and construct machines in my head, but I cannot do long hand math in my head (and most of the time I have to approximate shorthand), or memorize phone numbers without rhythmic repetition…in fact numbers are the only thing I have to use this trick with…curious indeed.

    1. We have a lot in common and yes, it isn’t always a good thing. I was reading an article about treating PTSD and they were talking about how victims of that experience memory of the traumatic event and I was thinking, “That’s how I remember everything.” Many things I’d like to forget or at least remember in less detail.

      The other thing we have in common is the inability to remember random strings of numbers like phone numbers. I tend to remember them as physical patterns on a keypad, for example. However, I have noticed something. I can not remember phone numbers and social security numbers, for example. But a nand gate? 7400. CMOS inverter? 4049. An old 80MB full height hard drive from Seagate? ST4096. I can remember a slew of part numbers. So there is something about making them associated with a part number that makes me remember. Why I can’t associate, say, a phone number with a name or face remains a mystery to me.

      1. Wow that’s exactly it!…I can remember faces really well too…in fact, every face I’ve ever thought anything about I can recognize. Conversely, I’m not as good with names, but once a decent association has been made, the face triggers the name in most cases…but, the name is notably harder than the actual face. I’m the same way with part names as well, more so, the name of any “thing” that intrigues me enough to want to know it’s descriptor. At that point, it is no longer “random” and locked away.

        “Why I can’t associate, say, a phone number with a name or face remains a mystery to me”…try rhythm while thinking of the person. I can remember number strings such as phone numbers like a muscle memory via rhythm…numbers 0-9 do not rhyme….so, when you want to make the association, think of the person and repeat the phone number rhythmically 15-20 times….breaking it down to the first three, pause, second three, pause, last four…since they do not rhyme every number has a unique sound, I can remember that unique “song” rather easily and that face and “song” are associated. Other larger random strings are a little tougher, I break the number up and repeat them in growing chunks…much like the 12 days of Christmas, repeating the original block as I add another 2 digits, and then original block+2digits as I add another 2 digits…so on and so fourth.

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