I’m going to make you a promise that you’re not going to believe. I’m going to promise you that by the end of this article, you will be able to memorize the 24 numbers below. With no effort. Easily.
I’m even willing to promise you that you will still be able to recall these numbers 10 years from now — just as easily.
Are you ready to try this with me? Here are the numbers:
Before we start our fun challenge, I want to share some basic principles about your brain that will help you understand why these tips will work.
Principle 1 — The Limits of Short Term Memory
In 1956, a Harvard psychologist named George Miller published one of the most cited papers in psychology with this very memorable and hilarious introduction:
“My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer. For seven years, this number has followed me around, intruded in my most private data, and assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals. Either there is something really unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution.”
It turns out, he was not delusional and we are all persecuted by that number. That number is the number 7. In his aptly named paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” George Miller showed that the limit of our short term memory is 7 bits of discrete information plus or minus 2.
When a new piece of information enters our brain, it experiences a limbo while our brains are trying to decide if it gets committed to long term memory or not. This limitation is the reason that attempting to rote learn the 24 numbers above using your short term memory won’t.
Principle 2 — Memory Requires Association
For a long time, people assumed chess masters had superior brains. After all, most were able to remember chess games from years ago with complete fidelity. In 1947, an Argentinian grandmaster named Miguel Najdorf played forty-five simultaneous games blindfolded — recalling chess positions for each game entirely from memory.
However, when Dutch psychologist Adrian de Groot studied the memories of these chess masters, he was surprised at what he found. The impressive memories of the chess masters only worked when the pieces could be arrived at from an actual chess game. When researchers randomly arranged the chess pieces into nonsensical patterns, the memories of the chess masters were not significantly different from a novice player. The chess masters were remembering clusters of patterns and not random bits of information.
The takeaway is that memory works most effectively by association. It sticks the best when it has an existing framework to stick to. This is why remembering a list of words in English is so much easier than remembering a list of foreign words.
Principle 3 — Emotions Etch Strong Memories
Do you remember what you were doing exactly this time a month ago? I’m going to guess “no”. What if I asked you what you were doing the moment you saw the image of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11 almost twenty years ago? This time, I’m going to guess “yes.”
It’s a strange phenomenon that most of us can’t remember what we ate for lunch a week ago but we can recall the day a family member passed away or the day we got married vividly — even if it happened decades ago. The reason this occurs is that strong emotions carve out indelible memories in our brains. The best part is, we don’t even have to try. Our brains do it all on their own which is why we want to leverage this to our advantage.
Principle 4 — Your Brain Does Not Remember All Types of Information Equally
Are you that person who says, “I’m hopeless with names but I’ll never forget face?”
If yes, you are not alone.
In the 1970s, researchers carried out an experiment where subjects were asked to recall 10,000 images (it took a week to conduct the experiment). Subjects were only allowed to look at the image one time but even then, the researchers found that people were able to recall 80 percent of what they had seen. What this tells us is that our brains are remarkably good at remembering images, far better than it is at remembering words.
In fact, researchers know that the favorite types of information that your brain loves remembering are visual and spatial, while the information it detests are random and abstract details — and they can definitively prove it.
To study how seemingly superhuman feats of memory were carried out, researchers conducted structural and functional brain imaging on the top memory champions in the world. They found very few structural differences between the brains of these memory champions and the average person. However, there were significant differences in the brain circuitry that they were engaging with during memorization. The memory champions were lighting up the parts of their brain dedicated to encoding visual and spatial information, which were not very active at all in the control subjects.
Now that you have some basic principles down, let’s get to some actual doing!
Lesson 1 — Chunking Information
Chunking is a way to work around the limits of our short term memory as described in Principle 1. Let’s try this out with our magic numbers.
That’s a lot of gobbledygook for your brain. Now, what if I separated the numbers this way?
2001/09/11 and 1776/07/04 and 1941/12/07
Your mind will probably now recognize these as dates. So, 17 random numbers have now become three distinct dates. Same numbers, different grouping — each chunk less than 7 digits long. This is better but you are still unlikely to remember the numbers by the end of this article. So, let’s do a little more.
Lesson 2 — Creating Context to Anchor Information
Remember how I told you in Principle 2 that our brains hate encoding random information? Well, what if I told you those three dates represent three significant historical events in American history?
- 2001/09/11 (Terrorist attack on September 11)
- 1776/07/04 (Independence Day for USA)
- 1941/12/07 (Attack on Pearl Harbor)
*My apologies to my non-American readers or American readers who don’t know these dates but I assure you the tips in the rest of the article will still apply to you.
Now you are more likely to remember the dates by the time you get to the end of this article but what about in 10 years? You would probably still remember that the task was to remember three historically significant dates but unlikely to remember exactly which ones. So, let’s move on to the next tip.
Lesson 3 — Etching Information into Your Brain with Emotions
In principle 3, we went through how strong emotions can etch a memory into your brain. So, what if I now told you that I will give you $100 million in 10 years’ time if you remember those three dates without writing them down? Do you think you will remember, with 100% certainty, which three dates they are?
I’m guessing the answer is likely yes. What changed? Without consciously choosing it, your mind probably instantly imagined the prospect of how $100 million would change your life and you got excited.
Here’s a pro tip — the emotion that boosts your memory the most is lust. Sex is one of our most primal needs and our brains are designed to seek it and get excited when we think of it. The more lewd, sexual, or kinky, the better! So, if the idea of $100 million isn’t enough to excite your brain into remembering, let’s have some fun and really get your blood flowing.
Lesson 4 — Creating (sexy) Images
In principle 4, we talked about how our brain is more effective at encoding images than words. So, what we want to do now is create images. Preferably sexy images that make you horny.
So, to remember Independence Day, you could maybe imagine a super sexy Scarlett Johanssen or Ryan Gosling naked except for the American flag wrapped around them and holding fire sparklers. Now you could also do the same with 9/11. You might imagine a sexy lady or hot man in a pilot’s outfit with a bushy beard and a balaclava to link planes and terrorists. The more ridiculous the image, the better. Finally, Pearl Harbor could be another sexy person of your imagination wearing nothing but a string of pearls. Now imagine all of them having a party in your bedroom. More importantly, spend some time thinking about how that might make you feel. The more senses you engage, the more likely you will be to remember it.
Lesson 5 — Building Memory Palaces
This next tip is for my non-American friends where the dates likely held no meaning for you. In principle 4, we described that the types of information that our brains are excellent at remembering are both visual and spatial information. A memory trick combining the two types of information is a 2,500-year-old technique called the memory palace.
First, I want you to recall a very familiar spatial map (e.g. the house you currently live in). Secondly, I want you to assign an image to each number. For example, 0 might be a giant dinosaur egg. Number 1 might be an Olympian with a bunch of gold medals around her neck and number 2 might be a cobra rising to strike.
So, for 2001, you might imagine a cobra and the Olympian fighting over two dinosaur eggs nestled on your couch in your living room. You would then place the next number (9) in the next room (e.g. your kitchen). To recall it, you would walk through your memory palace in a very specific sequence (starting from the living room, moving on to the kitchen, and so forth).
Lesson 6 — Making it Personal
At this point, you might be thinking — OK, fine, now I can remember Independence Day, September 11, and Pearl Harbor but how does that help me remember my wedding anniversary or my wife’s cousin’s name?
Remember how I said your brain remembers everything in context? The skill here is to find things that are important in your life and anchor the memories you want to create to them. That’s why the Independence Day example worked for Americans and not for non-Americans.
For example, if you’re a runner, and your wedding anniversary is 04/30, you might remember it as the time it took you to finish your last marathon. If your wife’s cousin has the same name first name as your high school teacher and the last name Baker, you might try to picture your high school teacher kissing a baker during a family Thanksgiving dinner.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, know this:
Memory isn’t a test of intelligence, it’s a test of creativity.
What’s the Point?
That’s a valid question. With the collective knowledge of the world constantly in the palm of our hands, we’ve eliminated the need to ever remember anything. Our phones remember our to-do lists, our partner’s birthdays, our most joyful memories, and even our own phone numbers.
But before the era of the written language, memorizing wasn’t simply for having access to information. It was a vehicle for personal transformation. The eighteenth-century Dutch poet Jay Luyken said,
“One book, printed in the Heart’s own wax is worth a thousand in the stacks.”
Our ancestors believed that by giving the information so much attention, we would absorb it differently and be fundamentally changed by it. Today, the technique of rote learning enriches no one — not ourselves and not society.
But in all my years of researching and practicing memory games, perhaps the most compelling reason is this — by consciously memorizing things in my life, I experience life differently. Slowly, and with exuberant richness. Creating colorful images not only improves my creativity but it turns the monotonous into the whimsical and punctuates my life with chronological landmarks.
As author Joshua Foer puts it,
“Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time and lengthens our perception of our lives.”
If all that your brain sees is the same coffee shop every day, the same breakfast, the same friends, the same locations, and the same tasks — you’ll likely get to the end of the year and wonder, “Where did my time go? Has it really been a year?”
By exercising your creativity and encoding more memories, you are consciously taking your mind out of autopilot and you can experience living longer without actually living longer. Isn’t that awesome?
So, the next time you have a few spare minutes of time, instead of doomscrolling on social media, pick out something to memorize and practice one or all of these memory tips:
- Chunking information
- Creating context to anchor information
- Etching information into your brain with emotions
- Creating (sexy) images
- Building memory palaces
- Making it personal
I’m going to get you started by leaving you with one final memory exercise:
The word “may” can mean “a possibility of” while the word “pang” can be defined as “a sudden intense emotion.”
So, in case you forget the name of your favorite writer in the future, you simply have to think of the possibility of (May) a sudden intense emotion (Pang).
Maybe one day we will be friends and you will change your mnemonic to a month (May) of yearning (Pang) instead and we can have a nice cup of tea in the beautiful memory palace you just created. See you in 10 years for your chance to win $100 million!