How to Memorize Any Number and Have Fun Doing It

Adam Washburn
Feb 1 · 7 min read
Source: Pixabay.com

I’d like to start off telling you a short, silly story. Please bear with me; I promise it has a point.

Try to visualize the story in your mind as you read it.

One evening, I walked into my bedroom. I noticed a large Turtle on my bed eating my pillow. I was so mad! I went to hit him, but he’s a small guy so I had to Punch Low.

My wife came in and asked what was going on. I couldn’t let her know about the turtle, so I told a big Male Fib. To hide my lying face, I had to look out the window. While looking, I noticed the full harvest moon — the one the farmers call the Cob Moon.

That sight reminded me of the fresh fruit I had been eating the night before. It was so good. So Mmmmmm…Fresh. I grabbed the leftover fruit off my nightstand. Unfortunately, after sitting overnight, the fruit was not fresh anymore. Instead it was contaminated with a New Germ. I fell sick immediately.

I collapsed and writhed on the floor. My wife called 911.

“Should I Move Him?”

“No!” came the reply.

Paying no heed, my wife came over and comforted me. We were a couple above Couples!

Illness could not stop our love. I was In Favor with my wife and she would help me in my illness. All of a sudden, our cat came running in and jumped on me. A Top Cat — not what I was looking for at the moment.

After reading (maybe re-reading) the story and visualizing, could you recall in order the following words?

Turtle

Punch Low

Male Fib

Cob Moon

Mmmm…Fresh

New Germ

Move Him…No!

Couples

In Favor

Top Cat

If you can use that story to remember those terms, you’re just a short step away from knowing the first 40 digits of pi. Yes, you’re closer than you think to memorizing this number:

3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971

To get there, I’ll teach you a memorization technique. But first, a short note on memory.

Our Memories Love Images

Source: Mohamed Ramzee, Pixabay.com

Some people seem to have great memories. Some of us feel quite the opposite. While there are some people that have a gift for remembering numbers, details, or concepts, the fact is that every human brain is highly capable of storing vast amounts of information.

The problem with most of us is that when we want to remember something, we don’t take the time, or don’t have the ability, to encode it memorably.

Our brains are quite attuned to remember vivid pictures, images, faces, emotions and stories. Too often, however, memorization focuses on dry, stale facts. These facts are so boring for our brains that we have to hammer them into our head with rote repetition.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Forget. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Forget. Repeat, repeat. Maybe remember…?

On the other hand, if you can convert dry and dull facts into a zany, imaginative story, your brain will have a hard time forgetting.

So how do you make 3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971 zany?

The Mnemonic Major System

Source: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay.com

Have you heard of the Major System? It’s a 200-year-old mnemonic system designed to convert numbers into phonetic sounds. The sounds can then be converted into memorable words and images.

Here’s how it works. Each digit 0–9 is assigned a phonetic sound or a set of related sounds. The classic assignments are as follows:

0 is assigned S/soft C and Z (soap, saddle, cent, zoo, zipper)

1 is assigned T and D (top, tip, dad, dove)

2 is assigned N (nose, none, never)

3 is assigned M (mom, mouth, move)

4 is assigned R (run, rapid, river)

5 is assigned L (like, love, leap, land)

6 is assigned Ch, Sh, J, soft G, Zh (church, shirt, jump, geriatric, Zhivago)

7 is assigned K/hard C and hard G (kite, cart, case, grip, gasp)

8 is assigned F (including PH) and V (fish, find, phone, violin, vast)

9 is assigned P and B (pop, pull, bag, bull)

Note that the assignments are based around the sound, not the actual letter. So you don’t have to be a good speller — you just need to know how to say the word.

All other spoken consonants (e.g. H, W, Y), silent letters, and vowels, are used as fillers to make words. They do not encode a number.

Now that you know the Major System, you can start to decode our first little story.

If we remember that the number pi starts with 3, we can then learn the remaining digits.

TuRTLe = 1415

PuNCh Low = 9265

MaLe FiB = 3589

CoB MooN = 7932

Mmm…FReSh = 3846

New GeRM = 2643

MoVe hiM, No = 3832

CouPLeS = 7950

iN FaVoR = 2884

ToP CaT = 1971

This can be continued for as long as you’d like. In fact, most of the words above were borrowed from this website which has words out to 400 digits of pi.

As a general tool, the Major System can be used in a variety of ways. You can take a string of numbers and create a word or phrase (as done above). However, this can sometimes be challenging to do on the fly with a set of random numbers.

Another common practice is to create memory pegs. A peg is an image or idea that you can attach a memory to. In this case, you associate a certain two-digit number with an image. You can then combine those images into a memorable scene or story.

For example, if you always remember the number pair 12 as DiNo and the number pair 58 as LeaF, when you see the string 1258, you’ll imagine a big dinosaur eating a leaf.

A Majorly Memorable Story

Source: Pixabay.com

Lest you are tempted to use rote memorization to learn the major system, let’s try a short, memorable story instead.

One (1) fine day I stepped outside to see a Dead Toad. (1, D/T)

It was killed by Two (2) Nails — each Nine inches long. (2, N)

Three (3) Mad Men were dancing around, having done the deed. (3, M)

I left Four (4) Red Roses by the departed toad to honor his memory (4, R)

From the roses, Five (5) Live Leaves Lifted up and began swirling in the air. (5, L)

They leaves were suddenly grabbed and eaten by Six (6) Chicks, Jumping and Shouting (6, Ch/J/Sh)

From the seventh (7) heaven, the angels Kevin and Gavin came to Kick and Giggle and finally Grab and Cart off the dead toad. (7, C/K/G)

We honored the Fate (F-8) of our departed toad with a toast of V-8 juice (8, F/V)

Feeling Benign (B-9) we made a box of Nine (9) Pine planks to Bury our toad (9, B/P)

Nothing (0) was left to See or do, so off I went to the Zoo (0, S/Z)

The 2-Minute, 2-Week Habit Challenge

Rather than sitting down and force feeding yourself a study session of the Major System, let’s try another way. One of the other tricks of memory is called “spaced repetition.” In other words, repeating in small bites over time is a much more effective way to learn and retain rather than cramming all at once.

This makes for a great 2-Minute, 2-Week Habit Challenge.

Challenge:
Spend 2 minutes a day working on learning, and then using, the Mnemonic Major System.

As with other mini-habits, you can use the principles taught by BJ Fogg in Tiny Habits to make this habit stick. First, find a daily prompt. Second, make the habit easy. Third, celebrate the accomplishment of your habit. (If you would like a short primer on habit formation, see You Should Do 2 Pushups Every Day for 2 Weeks)

To make this habit easy, plan on finding a time every day to review A Majorly Silly Story. After a few days, quiz yourself on the Major System sound assignments for the numbers 0–9.

After you’ve gotten down the Major System sound assignments you can start practicing. During your 2-minute habit time, look for random numbers that you can memorize. Maybe a phone number, a license plate, a credit card number. Anything.

Try converting those numbers to memorable words. Then make those words into vivid stories.

To help you in the process, I’ve created a study guide to help you learn the Major System with just 2 minutes of practice per day. Follow this link to get the free guide.

Stop the rote memorization. Start the silly stories. Don’t forget again!

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Adam Washburn

Written by

PhD Chemist, father of six kids, and local bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).