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Memory palaces and number pegs

By On Sep 28 2012, 8:00 am

Who else around here has problems remembering things? I know I do, and I have three specific areas of weakness: remembering items on a to do list (a perennial problem when I lose my shopping list halfway through a trip), remembering people's names, and remembering numbers. My worst nightmare is running into someone who knows me but whose name I can't remember, in the middle of a listless shopping trip while trying to remember somebody's phone number. Well, okay, not the worst, but those are all situations that make me curse my memory. I think they're pretty common issues, but I'm hoping they'll now be a thing of the past for me as I'm learning some amazing memory tricks from a fascinating book.

The book in question is quirky British magician Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind, in which he reveals some of the secrets behind his amazing performances (and if you haven't seen him in action, I heartily recommend looking up some of his shows). While the section on hypnosis utterly captivated me, it's the memory chapter that I'm getting the most use out of. In a nutshell, Derren's system involves creating vivid and unusual images to prompt our memory. This can be as simple as imagining someone dressed up as a caricature of someone else who shares their name (I tried this last night, imagining my friend Clare London's bright red hair on another Claire I had just met), or it can use special words, such as with the number pegs.

Numbers have always been a massive challenge for me. I've kept the same PIN for my bank card for the last fifteen years, paranoid that I'll never be able to remember a new one. I can't remember my Visa number or my National Insurance number (that's like an Social Security number), and I hate getting new telephone numbers when I move house. Up till now I've muddled through by remembering strings of numbers based on how they sound, or by the pattern they make when typed into a standard number keypad.

Now, however, I have a much better system. There are various kinds of mnemonic peg system out there, but Derren's works by assigning each digit from 0-9 its own letter, and then you use these letters to make words by adding vowels and soft consonants.

Derren has a whole string of word images for all the numbers from 0-52 listed in the book (he uses this method in certain card tricks, hence the 52), and you can remember longer numbers simply by dividing them into shorter ones. I tested this method yesterday to remember the plaque on a house I walk past most days, that says it was built in 1697. In Derren's system, those numbers stand for l,b,g,t. I toyed momentarily with remembering it as a reshuffled glbt, but then tried to come up with an image. "Lab git" instantly sprang to mind for some bizarre reason, and I imagined a particularly gittish looking scientist pouring something from a test tube down the chimney of the house. I can still see it as clear as day, and I'm not going to forget that date in a hurry!

So that's faces and numbers sorted, but what about those pesky shopping lists? This is where I'm going to be utilising the loci system, which has a venerable history and was a common memory technique in the Middle Ages, before the Puritans declared it unholy witchcraft (they really hated people using their imaginations). The essence of the technique is in constructing your own sequences of stops along a route you know well, so perhaps a walk you take daily, or a journey around the rooms in your house. You choose familiar points to place things you need to remember, making sure to visualise a vivid and unusual image. Then, all you need to do to remember your shopping list is to walk along the route in order, seeing what you placed there. I'm trying this at the weekend with a simple grocery list. We shall see how it goes!

The fantastic thing about the loci system is that you can keep adding onto it, creating your own memory palace. For instance, if you want to remember a list of something permanently (such as all Shakespeare's plays, in order), you can add a doorway from you main loci home into somewhere else you know well–perhaps a friend's house, workplace or childhood home. Fix your unusual images in there, revisit them occasionally, and you'll never forget them. Eventually you could have a whole palace of linked up places to explore in your imagination whenever you want.

Anyone else have problems remembering certain things, or know any good memory tricks to share?

About the Author:

English through and through, Josephine Myles is addicted to tea and busy cultivating a reputation for eccentricity. She writes gay erotica and romance, but finds the erotica keeps cuddling up to the romance, and the romance keeps corrupting the erotica. Jo blames her rebellious muse but he never listens to her anyway, no matter how much she threatens him with a big stick. She’s beginning to suspect he enjoys it.

Visit Jo’s website at for more information about her published stories, regular blog posts and saucy free reads.

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One Response to “Memory palaces and number pegs”

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