How Memory Works

Why do we have trouble remembering lists, numbers, and names?

Because hundreds of thousands of years ago our ancestors didn’t need to remember those things – they only needed to remember where food, water, and predators were.

Our brains evolved to remember vivid images like an attacking tiger or the location of a tree filled with fruit.

Vivid images => easy to remember
Numbers, names => hard to remember

The key is therefore to convert numbers, names, and lists into vivid images.

This is the guiding principal behind ALL memory systems.

Creating Vivid Images

A vivid image will use ALL of your senses:

Lemon exercise

The more outrageous the better!

Sleep and Memory

Keep in mind that your memory will be a whole lot sharper after a good night’s sleep. Mom was right when she told you to get some sleep before that big exam the next day.

Remembering To Do Things

We all need to remember to do certain tasks throughout the day. Maybe you need to pick up a quart of milk on the way home, or stop for gas, or buy a CD for your nephew’s birthday.

Making a vivid image associated with the task can make it easier to remember. For example, to remind  yourself to pick up a quart of milk on the way home you might try visualizing the following:

You imagine opening your car door and seeing hundreds of gallons of milk spilling out. As you sit in the car the seats are squishy with cold milk, and in the passenger seat sits a large cow, mooing loudly. Maybe the floor mats smell like sour milk. You can barely grip the steering wheel because it is slippery with milk.

With this image set up in your mind, getting into you car after work will instantly trigger the memory to buy milk.

Link System

Ever needed to remember a list of 10 grocery items? With the link system you create vivid images for each item you want to remember, and then connect those images in a dramatic way. If you want to remember to get eggs, saline solution, and tuna you might visualize the following:

Picture yourself stepping out of the house and stepping on hundreds of raw eggs. You can feel the egg yolk squishing through your toes. To wash off your toes, you grab a huge bottle of saline solution and spray it over your feet. The saline flow soon stops, however, because a tuna fish that was swimming in the bottle has become stuck in the nozzle.

When you get to the store, just “rewind the tape” of the image of you stepping out of the house.


Number Rhyme System

In this system, you associate the list of things you want to memorize with images that sound like the numbers one through ten. These ten words act like pegs. The ten items we want to memorize are associated with each of these pegs, allowing us to recall the list of ten memorized items in any order.

  • Sun                                               
  • Shoe                                               
  • Tree                                               
  • Door                                               
  • Hive                                               
  • Sticks                                               
  • Heaven                                   
  • Skate                                               
  • Wine                                               
  • Hen                                               

Roman Room Method

The Romans used to give speeches that lasted for hours. Their secret to memory? Each element of the speech was converted into an image and “placed” in a location of an imaginary house that they created in their mind. As they “walked” through their virtual house they came across each item and then mentioned it in the speech.

Remembering Names

One of the main mistakes made in remembering names is to rush through an introduction. The key here is to slow down, repeat the name often, and try to create an image to associate with the name.

Some tips:

  • Mentally prepare yourself to succeed, not fail.
  • Try to slow down the process, avoid rushing through an introduction.
  • Observe the person’s face carefully – try to identify unique characteristics.
  • Request that they repeat the name, even if you caught it the first time.
  • Try to use their name in conversation several times.
  • Repeat the name to yourself while you are listening to them.
  • Try to associate the name with a facial characteristic, especially one that is unusual or unique.
  • Associate the name with the name of a celebrity or someone else you know well.


Create a picture for the name. For example:

Gary = gory
Greg = dreg
James = aims
Lawrence = lower ants
Henry = hen ray
Richard = rich hard
Julie = jewel E
Linda = lender
Maggie = my key
Rosa = rose
Sue = sow
Sheila = shield

Remembering Numbers (The Major System)

Remembering numbers is perhaps one of the most difficult memory tasks. In this system, numbers are converted into letters which are then used to form images.

0 = s, z, soft c                                                  (z is the first sound of zero)
1 = d, t, th                                                             (d and t have one down stroke)
2 = n                                                                         (n has two down strokes)
3 = m                                                                         (m has three down strokes)
4 = r                                                                         (the last letter of four is r)
5 = l                                                                         (L is Roman numeral for 50)
6 = j, sh, soft ch, dg, soft g                                     (j is the mirror image of 6)
7 = k, hard ch, hard c, hard g, ng, qu                         (K contains two number 7s)
8 = f, v                                                             (f has loops that look like number 8)
9 = b, p                                                             (b and p are mirror images of 9)

Thus 8-4-3 translates into [f,v] [r] [m]
To form a word out of this, just add vowels or h, w, or y.
8-4-3 now becomes Farm. So instead of memorizing 8-4-3, you just remember Farm.
9-2-1 becomes Pond or Bond.
6-0-1-4 becomes Jester.


Concluding Thoughts

With some manipulation, the above systems can serve as the backbone for remembering:
Phone Numbers
Historical Dates
Foreign languages
And much more