How to Memorize Anything You Want: A Quick Primer on Mental Mapping

by A Manly Guest Contributor on September 30, 2011 · 50 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from two-time USA Memory Champion, Ron White.

What if you could play a game of cards with your buddies and recall every card that had been played? You can.

What if you could meet a client today and six months later see him at a football game and recall his name along with his wife’s and kids’ names? You can.

What if you could look at a 50 digit number for 90 seconds and then repeat the number forwards and backwards from memory? You can.

So how do you master your memory to this level? By utilizing a simple system of mental maps, you will be amazed at the amount of knowledge you will be able to store.

Here’s how to begin:

  1. Select 5 rooms in your home or office.
  2. In each room, number 5 large items. Number these items 1-25. The first item in the first room is #1, the first item in the second room is #6, the first item in the third room is #11, and so on. For example: Bedroom–1. desk, 2. bed, 3. tv, 4. dresser, 5. computer…Bathroom-6. toilet  7. window, 8. shower, 9. sink, 10. towel rack…etc. Remember, this is just an example.You want to select the pieces of furniture in the way they flow around your particular room.
  3. Practice saying these pieces of furniture and their corresponding numbers over and over until it becomes second nature to say them forwards or backwards. We will refer to these pieces of furniture as “files.”
  4. Now whenever you wish you to recall something, turn it into a picture and imagine it interacting with this piece of furniture.

Let’s say that you want to memorize all the Super Bowl winners. Once you have your files (the pieces of furniture) memorized, the next item of business is to turn whatever you wish to recall into a picture.

So you would be looking at a list that looks like this:

  1. Green Bay Packers
  2. Green Bay Packers
  3. New York Jets
  4. Kansas City Chiefs
  5. Baltimore Colts
  6. Dallas Cowboys
  7. Miami Dolphins
  8. Miami Dolphins
  9. Pittsburgh Steelers
  10. Pittsburgh Steelers

In order to remember anything, it must be an image that you can imagine. For example, if you wanted to recall the number 593787, it might be tough to recall. But a photo album with a coffee cup in it would be easy to remember. That is my picture for 593787. For now, lets address turning the football teams into pictures, a much simpler task that turning 593787 into an image.

What could you picture for the Green Bay Packers? Perhaps packaging. Coming up with an image for the Jets is easy–just picture an airplane jet. For the Chiefs, you would picture an Indian chief. The Colts would be a horse and the Cowboys a cowboy. This is pretty simple actually when you’re dealing with teams.

Now this is where it gets fun. Take each of these images and place them mentally around your 25 files in chronological order. For example, since the Packers won the first Super Bowl, imagine someone packaging a box on your number one file. To use the example above, you would picture someone packaging a box on top of your desk. The more action/emotion you can put into this image, the better chances you will recall it later. On your number two file, or your bed, you would also see packaging. On your number three file, you would imagine a jet landing or crashing into your tv. For your fourth file, you could imagine an Indian chief sitting on your dresser.

To memorize all the Super Bowl winners, you will need at least 45 files, but that is easy enough to mentally construct by simply selecting more rooms in your home (or other buildings and selecting 5 items in each). Because you are placing 5 files in each room, you should be able to memorize the numbers of your files rapidly.

The rationalization of 5 in a room, is that if you want to know what the 15th Superbowl winner was, it might take a minute to figure it out if you had 4 files in one room, 6 in another, and 9 in another. However, if there are 5 in a room, it is very easy. All you need to do is mentally jump to the 15th file in your home, or the last item in your third room, and you will see it getting raided by bandits, and this tells you the Oakland Raiders won Super Bowl 15.

Now whenever you wish to remember the whole list of teams, you simply mentally walk through your house, and imagine yourself looking at each piece of furniture–and its corresponding team–as you go from room to room.

This system can be used to memorize anything from 50 digit numbers, business presentations, chapters of books, college homework, product knowledge, or even sports team champions.

Happy memorizing!

___________________________________

Ron White (not the cigar smoking, scotch drinking comedian, although he does write his own jokes) is a two time USA Memory Champion who held the record for the fastest to memorize a deck of cards in the USA (1 minute 27 seconds) for 2 years. Perhaps you saw him on the History Channel show, Stan Lee’s “Superhumans.” For more information on Ron White’s memory training system, visit MEMORY TRAINING COURSE.

 

 

 

 

{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jason September 30, 2011 at 2:23 pm

I wonder if this method works better for visual leathers that auditory or kinesthetic types. I’ll have to try it out. Interesting post!

2 Matt Close September 30, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Sweet.

3 Turling September 30, 2011 at 2:34 pm

There’s a memory championship?

4 Daniel September 30, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Nice – just in time for mid-term exams next week!

5 Daren Redekopp September 30, 2011 at 2:53 pm

The Roman rhetoricians used this “memory palace” system for memorizing their discourses. The ancients were masters of memory, and Socrates bemoaned the deleterious effect that he knew writing would have on the musculature of man’s memory.

6 Ross Neu September 30, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Just what I’ve been looking for. I’ve hunted around amazon for books on memory technique but come up with nothing.

7 Mickey Goetz September 30, 2011 at 4:15 pm

I can’t remember what I did an hour ago, so this will definitely help dramatically. The logic seems to make sense, but what if you forget to do all of this? I guess this practice isn’t for the dramatically memory impaired.

8 Lovely Rita September 30, 2011 at 4:18 pm

This is great … will definitely put this to use! ;)

9 Thomas G September 30, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Nice article, thank you. How would you use this to remember names? Would John Mayor be turned into a John Rambo dressed as a mayor sitting on your couch (if that’s the chosen piece of furniture)?

10 Bruce Egert September 30, 2011 at 6:07 pm

I rely on a pocket notebook and my Blackberry to write down things for accuracy rather than rely on memory although I am not sure if I would be better off relying on my mental abilities alone.

11 stillhorse September 30, 2011 at 7:12 pm

This is an especially good guest post! I imagine such things come in handy in public speaking, yet another manly skill (and one referred to often here).

Also, kudos to you for reminding me what I was doing ;).

12 Ann I. Ball September 30, 2011 at 7:55 pm

I could have used this today when I couldn’t remember my bank account number and didn’t seem to have it in my purse.

I wonder what you do if you’re the type who rearranges furniture a lot. I suppose pictures on a wall will do, or things that don’t move , like doors.

Very interesting post.

13 Brandon September 30, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Alright, been practicing it for the last hour. I’ve now pretty much am able to list the top 25 of both the AP and coaches poll in order off memory now, the last 25 Heisman winners, and one national championship winning team from each of the past 25 seasons.

Sooo…now I’m trying to figure out how to apply it to things that aren’t in a certain order. How would I go about doing that?

14 mike September 30, 2011 at 8:03 pm

I heard a recording of Ron White speaking a few years ago. He had a list of 25 unrelated words that he used as an example and to this day, I can still remember that list in order. Too bad it was just a demonstration and is otherwise completely useless.

If you are the type that moves furniture around, picture the rooms in the house you grew up in, the building you work in or something else that is relatively unchanging.

He uses people to represent numbers so I’ve assigned numbers to friends and when I have to remember a new number, I picture my friends in the appropriate order.

15 Brandon September 30, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Update: Now I know the last 25 presidents in order as well. (Should have already known this though.)

So, just today I’ve learned the order of 25 things in something for 5 different lists. This is working wonders.

16 Neil September 30, 2011 at 10:34 pm

If this is interesting to anyone in the least I must recommend Moonwalking with Einstein. It’s a great story of memory layman to champion and goes into this very subject more in depth.

17 Julie September 30, 2011 at 10:54 pm

For all the people talking about how they just tried out this method and it works… I’d be interested in seeing if you remember the things you’ve memorized in six months, or a year. I know there are people who use this method to good effect (and, as someone said above, it was very popular in ancient Rome), but I definitely think it’s something that would take time and practice to use.

18 Alex October 1, 2011 at 12:26 am

I learned about memory mapping a few years in a Cognition class for my psych minor. As a medical student, I’m always using this method to memorize metabolic pathways and other things. Beware, though, this can create extremely strong memories so, be sure to use a new “map” for every list/whatever you’re trying to memorize. Sometimes using a previously used map can lead to one mixing up older memorized items in place of the newer ones.

19 Alex October 1, 2011 at 12:28 am

Julie, I can still remember the very first map & list we memorized in class 3 years ago. It’s really a quite amazing memory tool.

20 Suresh October 1, 2011 at 8:08 am

“Excellent article”

..

21 D October 1, 2011 at 10:14 am

If I could memorize that much stuff, I wouldn’t need a method for memorizing stuff.

22 Aaron October 1, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Julie: memory is like anything else: you use it or lose it. I’ve used systems like these for years, not a pro at it by any means, but I do know if I want to keep things fresh I have to revisit lists and items regularly if I want to remember it long term. I’ve yet to find a system that allows a person to do it once and you have it forever. If one did, then getting a PhD wouldn’t such a crap shoot for me and I’d be a millionaire (one of these two is going to happen, so help me God.)

23 Jeffersonianideal October 2, 2011 at 6:16 am

That’s OK, I’ll just write it down.

24 L Larson October 2, 2011 at 11:31 am

How could anyone forget the Green Bay Packers? That’s just ridiculous.

25 Blake October 2, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Hey Alex (or anybody who can help me), I’m having a hard time. I’m doing my pre-med and I am going to give this method a try. I just don’t know how to apply to some items. I have to memorize definitions of certain types of secretion (serous, mucous, mixed, and cytogenic) but I can’t draw up a mental image! It’s frustrating.

For example, I have to memorize the Epithelial Tissues (tissues in our body with closely adherent cells that covers the body surface, lines body cavities, and constitutes most gland tissues). I need to memorize each one of epithelium’s representative locations and functions. The problem is, they have so many different locations and functions! The first one is Simple Squamous Epithelium (A single layer of cells. Most commonly found in the alveoli [lungs] for the purpose of rapid diffusion of oxygen and CO2) and I have to memorize the locations: Alveoli; glomerular; kidney tubules; surface mesothelium of pleura and pericardium. How do I combine all of these into the memory method?

If anyone can shed more light, it would be much appreciated. I’m reading different books on studying techniques and I want to maximize my potential. One good trick I’ve learned is using colored flashcards and colored pens. The visualization of color helps me out a lot. Another good method is teaching others. If you have a study group, teaching other people the material actually helps you out to because you memorize it even further.

Comments would be appreciated! Thanks!

26 Cam October 2, 2011 at 11:29 pm

OK i can understand for something like a football team or even a word or term but how do i turn a 50 digit number into a picture? Wouldn’t i need to memorize the 50 digit number in order to associate it with the image?

27 Furniture Miami October 3, 2011 at 4:12 am

This is a wonderful post and words of these post is really good. If we want to memories something just remember its features it really help us.

28 Søren Pedersen October 3, 2011 at 9:07 am

I’m having trouble understanding how something like this would help me remember a guy I met 6 months ago.
Is the act of creating such a walkabout containing him and his kids enough to embed his face in my “memory index” so that I can “pull out” the walkabout containing the pictures of his name and so on?

29 Mike Beloff October 3, 2011 at 10:17 am

This method is called mental mapping. It was first used by Greek Senators to memorize their speeches and the others they heard that day.

30 Liz October 3, 2011 at 10:21 am

@Blake
My memory isn’t that good YET, and I’m not a doctor but I suppose that instead of using items in a room you might want to use ‘items’ in a body that’s been sectioned off. eg., the Head: 1 brain 2 eyes 3 nose 4 mouth and so on like the trunk would be sectioned as the 1 chest,2 stomach, 3 sides, 4 back and well,5 the butt. and so on….the other ‘rooms’ would be the arms and hands, the legs and feet, and the fifth ‘room’ I guess would be the blood or prehaps the skin, your call doc. That should work better than a series of ‘rooms’ for you and baring severe trama, none of the ‘furniture’ moves. Good luck!

31 Michael October 3, 2011 at 9:40 pm

@Blake

I had similar problems when I first started out many moons ago in the anatomy lab. I used the anagram technique for big lists and created a rolling story out of those acronyms. Started at the feet and as the story progressed I moved up the body.

For neural pathways I adopted coloured pins. If we were in the labs and were identifying segments of cadavers I would use a certain coloured pin. When studying from textbooks i would use the same coloured felt tipped marker and underline words with that. I use repitition for lists as an independant check and write them out over and over until I can remember them off the top of my head, in the same colour as the pins used on the cadavers.

I also learned some tools from Psych elements of my degree. One was taste recognition. I attempted to study using this technique, and one example the Prof. used was alcohol as it is very easy to remember the taste of certain liquors just by thinking about them. My room mate was a bartender so I used the alcohol example to study for his exam. Everytime I wrote a list in a coloured pen, I had a sip of a certain alcohol with the same colour. Blue pen – blue curaco, black pen – black sambucca, green pen – midori. Had to be careful not to get drunk, but after two nights of study (cram sessions as Psych was the least of my priorities for the degree) I ended up topping the class of 130. I told the Prof about the study technique – he was happy that I used Psychology to study his course, but wasn’t too impressed that I was drinking to remember his work.

Horses for courses.

32 Blake October 3, 2011 at 10:49 pm

@Liz

I like the idea of sectioning off. My next set of chapters will be bones. Theres so many…lol. I guess I could use just one room for all the bones of the head, and another room for all the bones in pelvis.

@Michael

Anagrams work really well for me. And color helps me a little, but not as much as I thought it would. But I don’t drink lol.

So I had another HUGE test today. I’ve tinkered with my technique a little bit. Right before the test is handed out, I’ll have sheets of notes. It’s more like a grid. The top grid was “tissues”. Then underneath tissues were the “4 major types of tissue”. Then each tissue had it’s own list of components and so on and so on. Now, as soon as my professor handed out the test, I would IMMEDIATELY write down everything I could on the back of the test exam or scrap copy paper. Don’t worry about small detail or definitions, but try to memorize that grid or pyramid. Then write it down ASAP! And also recording the lectures on my cell phone so I can listen to the lecture over and over again. Well thanks for your help guys!

33 Aaron October 4, 2011 at 6:01 pm

For remembering names, my favorite technique is to match the name to a defining characteristic of the person with the same name. Some of the ones I’ve used:

“Matt is massive” (he was like 6 foot 4, 275 lbs)
“Kevin is kind” (he really was a nice guy, and it stood out)

When you look at the person it’s fairly easy to recall an attribute, harder to recall a name.

34 Aaron October 4, 2011 at 6:07 pm

A fun fact about this technique: This technique is sort of a “brain hack” that allows you to store memory-type stuff in your visual-type stuff area. Humans naturally have an enormous chunk of their brain dedicated to vision and spacial relationships, but a small and more fickle area for memory. When you use visualization techniques you’re using that enormous visual cortex to store other types of data.

When you hear of some super-brain who is able to memorize everything and anything without ever having to do some trick like visualization, chances are good his brain is wired a bit differently than the average person’s, and he just naturally taps into that visual cortex for whatever thing he’s amazingly good at.

35 Rick October 5, 2011 at 5:15 am

I’ve been interested in the ‘memory palace’ system ever since reading ‘Red Dragon’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ Dr. Lecter uses this throughout the books. Completely forgot about it until this article. I’ll have to do some research now.

36 Tonya Keitt Kalule October 5, 2011 at 7:56 pm

I am so blown away and excited about the information on your website. I have of course reference it in a blog post ( http://bobbi-kalule.blogspot.com) that I did on letter writing and used the photo that you have. I was actually looking for a photo on the web and found your site. I also put on my fb and twitter page. Even though I am a woman, I will be reading this and of course will subscribe. Thanks for your wisdom and insight. I will continue to share.

37 Mark October 9, 2011 at 2:55 pm

This sounds more than a little like St. Thomas Aquinas’s “method of loci” memorization techniques. Kevin Vost’s book, “Memorize the Faith! (and Almost Anything Else): Using the Methods of the Great Catholic Medieval Memory Masters” is an outstanding primer for improving memory. One needn’t be Catholic to appreciate this book — the methods apply to everyone. It gets 27 five-star reviews at Amazon. Check it out.

38 Reed October 10, 2011 at 3:49 pm

The Catholic connection is interesting. You can see this method in a lot of medieval architecture. The decorative arches all over cathedrals could be filled in in a priest’s or monk’s imagination with whatever scriptural symbols that he needed to recall. It helped that saints and biblical figures would have aspects that could stand in for them; for example, an “X” cross for St. Andrew or the animals that represented the Four Evangelists. Very similar to the name-game idea of matching a name with an alliterative word describing that person.

39 David October 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm

So how would you go about memorizing a list of numbers using this technique (how can you memorize a sequence of number by thinking of “a photo album with a coffee cup in it?”.

40 DV Bowden October 14, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Harry Lorayne is the elder statesman of modern memory training. His book The Memory Book (co-authored with Jerry Lucas) contains everything you need to memorize almost anything, including long numbers, names and faces, and lists of items. It is less than $10 from Amazon. It teaches the “phonetic alphabet” which will allow you to turn numbers into words, which can be memorized. He also stresses effective techniques for making your visualisations memorable, and improves on the “loci” concept with the “peg” system. He didn’t originate these methods, as far as I know, but has popularised and improved them.

41 Karen October 16, 2011 at 1:58 pm

For more on the memory champions, read “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer. He’s a journalist who learned about his subject by becoming one – a very interesting read.

42 Wayne October 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I’ll echo DV Bowden’s recommendation of The Memory Book. If you’re interested in training your memory, you should definitely read that book.

The key improvement of Mr. Lorayne’s system is instead of using “loci”, the items you need to remember are in and of themselves the “loci” – at least in terms of remembering. Then all you need to do is remember the first or last element of the list, and you’re off!

I admit that I’ve stopped using most of the memory techniques – they do take some mental effort to use – but the one that I especially continue to use is the phonetic alphabet for memorizing my location in a book. No more bookmarks needed!

And thought it’s been several months(years?) since I’ve last cracked the cover of The Memory Book, I still remember 918527195216392792112, with no real difficulty ;)

Also, IIRC, airplane, envelope, tree, earring, bucket, sing, salami, basketball, nose, star, and it’s been years since I even considered that list, so yes, I would say the system works.

43 Dennis October 27, 2011 at 11:13 am

The art of memorizing lists of things brings to mind savants. Kim Peek, aka “Rain Man”, was a wonderful example, but nobody knows how his brain worked nor understood how he memorized every detail of 10,000+ books.

Daniel Tammet is another savant who “one-ups” Peek by being able to explain how he can memorize 22,514 digits of Pi. He says each number is a feeling, color and/or shape in his head. He explains that he does math no by calculating, but by feelings. These savant abilities may be a result of seizures as a child which fried his brain just a bit. It is possible the part of his brain used for math and logic made connections with the region responsible for feelings.

But what if by chance, you are not a savant? The object association method described in this article is somewhat similar to what Tammet can do naturally. Making a story with the items you want to memorize may also help.

44 Tajamal Hussain September 26, 2012 at 10:48 am

Brain is necessary for the memorizing, Anyone can inter relate and increase memorization.

45 pat October 25, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Brilliant article and comments that will be put too use… Just memorised waynes list in no time at all… 91852.. 71952… 6392… 792… 112.. iirc? airplane in an envelope up a tree, drops an earring in a bucket, sing salami. Hit by basketball, bloody nose, seeing stars… gives ya an idea too how I did it. Will try it again in the morning.

46 Simon J Stuart November 28, 2012 at 5:47 pm

I was going to comment earlier, but I forgot!

^ Sorry, I know it’s not funny but I couldn’t help myself.

47 emmanuel March 15, 2013 at 5:27 am

so lovely. am new and does not know how to really start any of the methods

48 Boy Franssen April 10, 2013 at 1:16 pm

This is a fantastic post thank you.

My memorization technique is that you write down everything you need to remember. This will create a good overview. Than you read this list just before you go to sleep. Of course you can also choose to read it when you wake up. And when you can memorize something you can remove it from your list.

49 Erin May 13, 2013 at 4:45 am

Can you reuse a memory map for different things? Or do you have to build a new one each time you want to memorize new information?

50 cryptex_vinci August 9, 2013 at 6:08 am

It’s called Method of loci or Memory Palace

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