My successes and failures with memorization techniques.
I’d call my memorization abilities decent or average. On a good day, maybe even slightly-above-average-but-still-nothing-to-write-home-about.
I never thought much about my memory until around 6 years ago, when I bought a copy of Moonwalking with Einstein (affiliate link), by Joshua Foer. It wasn’t even the subject matter that drew me to the book; I actually only bought it because I was a long-time fan of the author’s brother, Jonathan Safran Foer.
Despite having a really stupid reason for buying the book, I ended up loving it. The book was all about Joshua Foer’s experiences with learning mnemonic techniques, and eventually going on to participate in international memory competitions. (Who even knew such a thing existed?)
I was totally engrossed in the book from start to finish. When I was done I immediately decided to try some of the techniques for myself. The results were mixed.
Visualization, The Major System, and Memory Palaces
Visualization was one of the fundamental aspects of the memory techniques described in the book. The idea is pretty simple — our brains are best suited for remembering pictures, not words or numbers. So, in order to better remember words and numbers, we should convert them to images first.
And how do we convert words and numbers into images? Memory enthusiasts have devised a lot of different systems to help with this. The one that Foer focused on the most in his book was the major system, so that’s the one that I started with.
The major system converts each digit of a number to an English consonant. For example, a seven becomes a “c” and a one becomes a “t”. Those consonants are then used to make words, and those words are memorized as images. So, 71 becomes “ct,” which becomes “cat,” and finally is memorized as an image of a cat.
I know that it sounds incredibly convoluted, but it actually starts to feel pretty easy after a few hours of practice. The magic of the major system is that it allows very long numbers to get converted into just a few images.
The final step in the process is a “memory palace.” A memory palace is just a visualization of some physical location, like your house or office. In order to memorize a sequence of images, you imagine walking through your “palace” and placing the images throughout it.
To recall the information, you imagine yourself walking back through the palace, and spotting all the images you had placed.
I decided to try the techniques by memorizing the digits of pi. Pi is an irrational number with an infinite number of digits, and it’s also the most popular number for memory enthusiasts to test out techniques on.
I spent about a month memorizing pi, using the techniques from Moonwalking with Einstein. I’d break the number into groups of 20 digits, and then convert those digits to images using the major system. Finally, I’d place each set of 20 digits in a different room in my memory palace.
Throughout the day, I’d imagine myself walking through the palace, trying to recall pi. Even with the mnemonic techniques, it still required an incredible amount of repetition to actually make the memories stick. The major system and the memory palace were incredibly powerful tools, but they weren’t magic.
Eventually, though, I was able to remember the first 320 digits of pi. I was really impressed with myself and the techniques. 320 digits seemed like a mindblowing amount — I had gone way beyond my expectations.
Memorization in the Real World
As excited as I was with my success memorizing pi, I wanted more. Memorizing pi was kind of fun, but it didn’t seem to have any real-world application. I didn’t have any actual reason for knowing 320 digits of an arbitrary number.
I tried to come up with long numbers to memorize that might actually help me. I used the techniques for a few phone numbers and credit card numbers. The techniques worked well, but phone and credit card numbers are short enough to memorize without any special techniques, so I still wasn’t totally satisfied.
Around this time, I entered law school, so I decided to try applying memory techniques to what I was learning in class. There were no large numbers to memorize, so I discarded the major system and just focused on the memory palace technique.
I created memory palaces for each of the subjects, and throughout my first semester of law school, I tried to use them to remember the different statutes and case law we covered.
I couldn’t make it work.
It had been easy enough to convert numbers to simple images, but I never found a way to reduce the complexities of a legal decision down to an easy-to-remember visualization.
In the end, I had to use traditional rote memorization to prepare for my exams. After the first semester, I stopped trying to use the memory palaces at all.
I don’t necessarily think memory techniques are totally useless for law school or education in general. It may have been more a failure of my own imagination than a failure of the techniques. Regardless though, they certainly didn’t work for me.
Six Years Later
My experiments with memory techniques were fun, but the truth is that these days I rarely use the techniques at all. I’ve forgotten all of the digits of pi that I memorized, and don’t even remember the major system very well. I never use memory palaces anymore.
The one technique that I still do use though is visualization. Although I don’t memorize things as systematically as I used to, I still find that it’s very helpful to picture things in my head as images, rather than merely remembering words or abstract ideas.
Also, I’d still recommend that others try memory techniques out for themselves. Even if memorizing pi doesn’t have many real-world applications, it’s still fun to try pushing your mind past its apparent limits. And maybe you’ll find more success in applying the techniques to the real world than I did.