How do they do it?!
Fortunately, it’s not too hard to learn their secrets: Mnemotechnists have a surprisingly bumping web forum, Mnemotechnics.org, that details the best techniques for memorizing pi, stacks of playing cards, the name of every Oscar winner since 1928 — and just about anything else you might like to remember. Here’s a primer on some of their essential techniques. By the end, you should theoretically know pi to 50 digits.
The Linking System
The linking system is one of the most basic ways to remember a list — perfect for our purposes, since we’re all beginners here. Essentially, what the linking system does is invent a vivid, visual story around a list, “linking” them together in an order that’s easy to recall.
Michael Tipper, who first organized the World Memory Championships, gives this example on his Web site. Say you’re trying to memorize the order of the planets from the sun — Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. Tipper’s story goes something like this: a thermometer full of mercury comes out of the sun; the thermometer explodes, raining mercury on the goddess Venus; Venus digs a hole to escape, piling up earth; the digging annoys her neighbor, who’s eating a Mars bar; when the neighbor goes to yell at her, he throws the candy, hitting Jupiter; Jupiter is wearing a T-shirt that says SUN (Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) and walking a dog that looks like Disney’s Pluto.
Ridiculous? Yeah. Sensical? Not entirely. But read that paragraph twice and then recite the planets — you might be surprised how easily the list comes.
The Number Rhyme/Shape System
This is similar to linking, in that you transform the items you need to remember into a visual story — but this technique is used specifically for numbers 1 to 10. For number rhyme, you associate every number with an object it rhymes with. One is “wand.” Two is “shoe.” Three is “tree.” For number shape, you associate each number with an object that looks like it: One is candle, two is swan, three is heart.
So if I needed to remember the list of random words tomato, birdcage, chair using the rhyming method, I’d imagine a wand conjuring a tomato, a shoe inside a birdcage, and a chair in a tree. Same concept for number shape. These are called mental “pegs,” a good concept to grasp as we try to remember more (and longer!) things.
The Major System
Okay, this is where the pegs start to get a little less literal. Instead of assigning rhymes or shapes to numbers, we’re going to start assigning phonetic consonant sounds. This chart, from the Memory Page, lays out the standard associations:
So clearly, in order to memorize something with the major system, you have to first memorize the major system itself. But once you get over that little hurdle, this actually helps you remember strings of numbers as strings of sounds — that is, words — which are way easier to recall. Let’s take the first 12 digits of pi, 3.14159265359, and split them into chunks: 3141, 592, 65, 35, 89.
By running those numbers against the phonetics chart (or even better, using a Major System keyword-finder tool, like this one), I come up with the equivalents moderate, Libyan, usually, smile and Phoebe. If you can remember the phrase “Moderate Libyans usually smile Phoebe,” then you can remember the first 12 digits of pi.
A couple important notes here: this is entirely phonetic, so spelling doesn’t count. Vowels, “w,” “h” and “y” don’t count either — so the word “hollow,” for instance, actually only contains one useful sound, l. (For 5!)
The Journey or Loci Method
The major system might work for memorizing 12 things or 24 things — or even 200 things. But if you’re trying to memorize a really extraordinary list of digits, you have to take it up a notch.
There are a number of different variations on the Journey Method, but they all essentially involve pegging numbers to a location, real or imagined. When you mentally walk through this “memory palace” and visualize the items in it, you should be able to remember them again. If my memory palace was the Washington Post newsroom, for example, I might envision my route to my desk: the front doors, the lobby, the elevator, the landing on the Style floor and finally, my cubicle. You might remember this technique from the second season of BBC’s “Sherlock.”
So if we go back to the planets example, I might imagine the sun shining on the front doors — then a tiny planet Mars in the lobby — then meeting the goddess Venus in the elevator — etc. As I remember my memory palace better, I can add more rooms or put more items in each room.
Putting it All Together
Okay, now the part we all really care about: How to quickly memorize 50 digits of pi to awe (or perhaps appall?) our friends at happy hour tonight. These are the first 50 digits of pi:
Now here they are coded as words, in the major system:
- Moderate Libyan usually smile Phoebe. (3.141592653589)
- Scoop ammonium fresh now. (793238462)
- Germ movie maniac appalls. (64338327950)
- Naive ferret poked sheep mob. (288419716939)
- Balmy kilts. (937510)
And here they are in my newsroom memory palace:
- There’s a moderate Libyan smiling at my coworker, Phoebe, as I walk through the front doors.
- The security guard is scooping fresh ammonium in the lobby.
- I ride the elevator with someone who is obnoxiously obsessed with the movie “Contagion.”
- There is a talking ferret on the landing, railing about “sheeple.”
- I put on a warm-weather kilt at my desk.
Bam: I just memorized the first 50 digits of pi. I may have looked ridiculous doing it … but you can’t tell me this guy did any better.