20110405

Remembering Facts: Using Mental Associative Chains

The memory chain technique
An image can help your memory...
For how long?
This is a method I use to complement the memory palace technique to remember facts, either historical, about people or any other subject. It is pretty simple and follows the same principles as the memory palace: you need to make up bizarre images. To memorise facts we just need to attach keys to each fact, and link them to the subject or person we are considering. Forming a chain of images. Simple, huh? Let's try!

As an example in this post we will work with a person facts. Consider the bio snippet of Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness from Wikipedia:
Halldór Kiljan Laxness [ˈhaltour ˈcʰɪljan ˈlaxsnɛs] (born Halldór Guðjónsson) (April 23, 1902 – February 8, 1998) was a twentieth-century Icelandic novelist, poet, and essayist; author of Independent People, The Atom Station, and Iceland's Bell. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955.
We have a few numbers and books to relate with him. I assume implicitly that I will always remember his nationality (something which may not be true in all cases) but you can treat nationality in the same way that we will treat book names. First, we need some kind of placeholder. If you have read some of his books you could use some place or city appearing in them. As I know (and even saw) he had a white '69 vintage Jaguar, this will be my placeholder. Let's start with the dates.

Remembering numbers

There are several techniques you can use to remember numbers and years. Usually, in the hard-core memorisation books it is suggested to use something called the major system, where you assign to each number a letter or a few letters, and then you form words with them. This word will be the key to decode the numbers. It is comprised of the following number-sound combinations:


NumberSoundsMemory tip
0s, z, soft cz is the first letter of zero
1d, t, thd and t have one downstroke
2ntwo downstrokes
3m3 downstrokes
4rlast letter of four
5lL is the roman 50
6j, sh, soft ch..script j looks like upside 6
7k, hard c, hard g, qcapital script K looks like a pair of 7's
8v, fthink of a script f (which has two loops)
9b, pp is the mirror image of a 9, b is a rotation of 9
-vowels, w, h, yWHY+vocals: use them anywhere to fill the gaps and form words

Based on the description from Your Memory : How It Works and How to Improve It (Amazon link, Bookdepository link)

For a while I had tried using another system: mobile phones assign to each number any of 3 letters, except for 0, 1, 7 and 9. The first two are for special signs, the two last have 4 letters. What I did was moving s to 1 and z to 0. To further simplify, I used only consonants and left away the vocals in this. But the major system is in some sense simpler, as it assigns sounds and not only letters. Let's try to use it here.

Let's start then with the date of birth, 23rd of April, 1902. The day and month are trivial to remember: it is the international book day, linked to Cervantes and Shakespeare's death dates. It is also Saint George, a special day in Catalonia. For the year, we can assume we know it is in the 20th century and only encode 02 which result in s/z/soft c + n. Two-letter combination can be tricky to come up, but we can form a few words: son, zone, ozone, sin... If we needed also the century (setting aside the fact that we could create a fixed image for 10 up to 20 to use as century indicator), 1902 would give t/d+b/p+s/z/soft c+n. As you see, forming a word with 4 letters can be even trickier: you should split them in groups of two letters.

Now, add an image to Saint George fighting the dragon. Which word to use? I'll use zone. And what is the image? Saint George (wearing a bib) is playing 1-1 basketball inside the zone being heavily guarded by a big, green dragon. The bib part is to remind me this is birth.

Now, his death 8th February 1998. We can encode month-day combinations (which are not as easy as before: always use tricks if you can) as DMM (0802 or 82) or MMDD (0208 or 28). There is some ambiguity in both choices, and as such you have to play it safe and be consistent. As a Spanish speaker, the natural way of date sorting for me is DDMM, thus I'll use 82: v/f+n. Now 1998, 98 gets b/p+v/f. An anthropomorphic phone eating beef, using as a table a tombstone.

To remember when he was given the Nobel Prize, 55 is l+l, and our writer is named Halldór Kiljan Laxness. Which happens to have two L's in the name. Here I assume I will always remember this, too and create an image of him with his prize, as a reminder that the date is hidden in him.

Let's start to form the images: Laxness sitting in the driver's seat of a pearly white Jaguar, typing furiously in a typewriter, with a Nobel prize in his lap. Behind it Saint George wearing a bib is playing a 1-on-1 basketball game, fighting to get a good position inside the zone against the dragon. Behind the car a big, anthropomorphic phone is eating beef (picture the beef as you enjoy it, taste it mentally... medium, rare?) and using a tombstone as table.

Remembering names

Remembering names is far, far more specific than numbers. We want to remember the names of his most relevant novels (according to the Wikipedia snippet). Independent People, for me, makes me think of the painting La Liberté guidant le peuple. The Atom Station, a big red London-style bus stopping below the Atomium, in Belgium. Iceland's Bell is the Hallgrímskirkja bell swinging full force.

If there is some possibility of forgetting his nationality, use some strong related image to add to your mental placeholder. For Iceland, I could use any image of my road trip around Iceland, but a good one even if you've been there are the images of Eyjafjallajökull erupting just above the car.

We just need to place all these images around the pearly white Jaguar. We can place them in the car's back seats: the painting, a big reproduction of the church and a big red toy bus, each laying in one back seat. I'm counting here on remembering the atom part just from having the image of the Atomium and the bus implicitly. This can also lead to easier forgetting, but sometimes you have to trade off simpler images with perfect recall.

Develop your own keys

This can only get better with practice, and you can use it for people, history or whatever you come up with. Find your own imagery and fill your characters with expression and unforgettable facts. Use your life and previous knowledge as basis to form images (like I used Saint George) that are significant for your mind, don't rely on others for this. As with the memory palace technique, practice makes perfect, and I can assure you that you will be able to store a lot of facts about important people without problems.

Can you still recall the images we have used? And still remember the major system? Remembering the major system can be the tricky part, just keep trying! If you found this post useful, please spread the word!

In case you want to read more:

Written by Ruben Berenguel