A Practical Use for Memory Techniques

I just finished Joshua Foer’s 2011 book Moonwalking with Einstein, about the tiny but interesting world of memory competitions. These are people who compete to rapidly memorize things like the order of a deck of cards, or a long sequence of random numbers or words.

Their mnemonic techniques are all based on a single insight: our visual memory is better than our abstract memory. So you can remember things better by converting them into a spatial sequence of wacky images.

This trick has been around for a long time, so there’s a good chance you’ve heard some version of it. Here’s the way someone first explained it to me. Suppose you’re going to the supermarket and you need to remember five things to buy — milk, eggs, bread, coffee filters and shaving cream. Now picture a stretch of road that you know well, one that you’ve walked or driven so many times that you know every building and landmark. Visualize yourself driving down this road on a rainy day, but it’s raining milk instead of water. You turn on the windshield wipers, but when you use the cleaning fluid jets, shaving cream comes out instead, making the visibility worse — so you almost miss the giant four foot tall loaf of bread in the middle of the road. Swerving around it, you’re now passing the library on your left, whose patrons are throwing eggs at you out of the windows… and so on. It’s a lot easier to imagine this bizarre experience than to remember the list by rote.

How do you adapt this trick to remembering the first 5,000 digits of pi, or the other unlikely feats that Foer writes about? First, by memorizing an “alphabet” of images for numbers, letters, playing cards, or whatever else, that you can use in turn to represent whatever sequence you’re memorizing. Second, by memorizing the layout of various buildings and other real physical spaces, so you have lots of “room” to lay out these images in a sequence that you’ll remember. If the number one is always a skinny mustache-twirling cartoon villain, and the number four is an angry hippo, then the first three digits of pi after the decimal, 141, could be one of these villains being chased by a hippo, with another villain running behind them. If the space you’ve chosen is your childhood home, this could be happening in the driveway as you walk up to the door. The next image is on the doorstep, the following one is just inside the door, and the rest are arranged throughout the house in a fixed path that you can imagine yourself walking along.

The larger and more complex your alphabet, the more efficient this is: if you have images for every two-digit number, then 1415 is just two images to memorize (14 and 15) rather than four. And if your images include elements that can be mixed and matched, it creates a similar advantage: for example, Foer learns to memorize sequences of playing cards by associating each one with a person/action/object combination, and then grouping them into chunks of three. If the five of diamonds is Einstein throwing a baseball, and it comes second in a group of three, you take the action (throwing) in forming your new image; if it comes third, you take the object (baseball), and so on.

If you’re thinking “this all sounds clever but not very useful” then you’re not alone. It was at least ten years ago that I heard that shopping list trick, and while I found it interesting, I’ve used it exactly zero times since then. Foer arrives at a similar verdict:

It’s not that the techniques didn’t work. I am walking proof that they do. It’s that it is so hard to find occasion to use them in the real world in which paper, computers, cell phones, and Post-its can handle the task of remembering for me.

Ed Cooke, one of the memory champions in the book, has started a website called Memrise to help you apply this technique. It seems to be most popular for memorizing vocabulary in a foreign language, as Foer wrote about himself in this recent piece. Using visual mnemonics as a language learning technique is an interesting subject in itself that I may write about separately. But at any rate, it’s largely based on the first-order technique in my shopping list example, with one unique image per word memorized. In reading the book, I wondered if there was a practical reason for ordinary people to develop second-order “alphabets.” For example, would poker players improve somehow if they had an image in mind for each card, and different hands formed various compound images? To some extent these associations develop naturally, as Gram Parsons sang:

Well the queen of spades is a friend of mine
 The queen of hearts is a bitch
 Someday when I clean up my mind
 I’ll find out which is which

Anyway, the best use I can think of is remembering passwords. As I recently learned from this article, if you’re using anything other than long, randomly generated passwords for websites, unique to each account, then you’re highly vulnerable to being hacked, no matter how clever or elaborate your “system” is for creating them. But it’s impossible for most of us to remember lots of random sequences of letters and numbers, so our only option is to use a password manager, which creates hassles and vulnerabilities of its own.

But if you just memorize 36 images, one for each letter of the alphabet and each digit from zero to nine, then you could convert any random password — like 2pddeyup68, which I just generated at random.org — to a sequence of images that should be much more memorable. (Make it 62 images if you want to include capital letters, unless you represent capitalization with size or some other variable.) And you could begin each sequence with an image corresponding to the site, so you can remember which password you used where.

I’d be curious whether any of the people who learn these techniques actually do this with passwords, or whether there are other situations in everyday life where that basic 36-image repertoire would come in handy. It seems like there must be, but it’s not easy to think of them. Remembering the license plate number if you witness a hit-and-run? Visualizing the first few letters of someone’s name to help it stick? Let me know if you can think of others.