Most people have trouble remembering numbers. This is easy to understand, because we all remember things that we care about, and most of us don't care very much about numbers. The key to remembering numbers is to translate them into something that we do care about using mnemonics.

A mnemonic is a device, such as a jingle or a rhyme, used to aid memory. Music students remember "Every Good Boy Does Fine" to remember the notes "EGBDF" from bottom to top in the treble cleff. Grade school students learn mnemonics to master spelling (e.g., there is A RAT in "separate"). Medical students, who must memorize large amounts of anatomical information, use many mnemonics that are passed like prized poetry among students. You probably know many mnemonics.

The mnemonics in these examples are specific to particular bits of information. Learning the mnemonic to read music doesn't assist you in learning to spell. Other mnemonic devices have general application. These are more difficult to master and require practice, but make it possible to learn dazzling amounts of information.

The first step in mastering mnemonics is to understand your own mind. Think of a type of thing that you remember well. Most people have strongly visual memories, recalling scenes from movies vividly. Think of your favorite movie, one that you have seen a number of times. What is the most memorable moment? It might involve dialog, action, or music as well as a visual image. That scene is easier to remember than a telephone number, isn't it? Other people remember poetry or music (sounds) better than visual images. It doesn't matter what sort of thing you remember well, as long as you figure out how your own mind works.

The next step in mastering mnemonics is to figure out how to translate information that has no particular significance to you (a telephone number, for example) into something that you care about.

Here is a basic mnemonic device that I use in memory demonstrations: the translation of numbers into letters. Each digit from zero to nine can stand for a letter.

1. One is T, because one stroke down makes 1 or T.

2. Two is N, because two strokes makes 2 or N; N on its side looks like 2.

3. Three is M, because three strokes makes M; M on its side looks like 3.

4. Four is R, because R is the fourth letter in FOUR.

5. Five is F or V (think of FiVe). F sounds like V (compare "few" and "view").

6. Six is J, SH, or CH, because J looks like 6; SH and CH sound like J.

7. Seven is L, because L upside down looks like 7.

8. Eight is G, because a typeset, lower-case g looks like 8.

9. Nine is P, because a mirror image of P looks like 9.

0. Zero is Z or H, because Z is for Zero and Brits don't pronounce H as the first letter.

When using this system, vowels don't count, so it is possible to add vowels to a string of these letters to make words.

Once you put in the time and practice to learn this system, it is possible to perform amazing feats of number memorization. For my own demonstrations, I have memorized the value of pi to 5,200 digits! (See

Imagine that you have the mnemonics to translate numbers to letters drilled into your memory. Now let's try to memorize the first seven digits of pi (seven digits, like a phone number). The first seven digits are 3.141592. That translates into M T R T F/V P N.

We can make a set of words using these letters (remember, vowels don't translate into numbers and can be used freely). How about: "MeTeoR TuF PiN". If you like disaster movies, imagine that Bruce Willis is sent into space to keep a giant meteor from hitting the Earth. As they near the dreadful object, one of the crew asks how he will stop it. Bruce, a man of few words, holds up a titanium pin about four feet long and says, "Tough pin." The plan is to pin the thing onto the roof of the sky just like the kid's game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. You can even put a kid's party hat on Bruce in his spacesuit to make it more absurd.

What if, when you practice remembering this little movie, you mess up and keep thinking of "titanium pin" or "large pin" instead of "tuf pin"? Just add more detail. Bruce can help you. Imagine that Bruce Willis, in his spacesuit and party hat, slowly turns the head of the pin to face the camera as it zooms in for a close-up. On the head of the pin in red letters is the trademark, "TuF PiN". Thanks, Bruce.

Crazy, isn't it? It's like a dream sequence that doesn't make much sense. If we are watching a movie with a science fiction premise, why is there a roof to the sky? If they can afford Bruce Willis, can't they get a better scriptwriter? It doesn't matter. Just try to forget the image of the giant meteor behind Bruce Willis with his tough pin. You can't.

The more ridiculous and nonsensical the images are, the easier they are to remember. People who make TV commercials understand this. What do talking frogs have to do with beer? I'll bet you know which brand I mean, though.

Now imagine that you have a list of these little movies that has to be recalled in order. The Romans had a technique for this to assist orators (paper was scarce and expensive and there were no teleprompters). The mnemonic technique is called the method of loci. Imagine that you are following a familiar route, entering your house or apartment, for example. The first thing that you do is to check the mailbox. What's this? It's an ad for some really dumb disaster movie with Bruce Willis. It's hard to imagine what they were thinking - he's got a kid's party hat on besides a spacesuit! That gives us MeTeoR TuF PiN or 3.141592. Next, you reach for the doorknob. What's that on the doorknob? It's the next mnemonic device on your list. This goes on as you toss your keys on the table by the door, hang your coat in the closet, and so on.

You might see how this works, and be able to do this yourself with some practice, but still fail to understand how it is possible for Dr. Wilson to remember 5,200 digits of pi. It is only a matter of scale. Can you toss a ball two feet in the air and catch it? Probably. Can you juggle seven balls while moving in time to music in front of 2,000 people? Well, that's why you are willing to buy a ticket to the circus, isn't it?

Watching acts of tremendous skill executed smartly and with confidence inspires us. If the performer that you are watching is willing to devote hundreds of hours of practice to learn to do something that is essentially meaningless, perhaps you can make some effort to do the things that are important to you!

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step -- Lao Tze.

Author's Bio: 

Paul Szauter performs memory demonstrations as part of an
old-time medicine show for Dr. Wilson's Memory Elixir. Please see: