For some number of years, probably after first stumbling across the existence of “memory champions” as a result of listening to all sorts of podcasts, I have been curious about, but have never attempted to learn, how to improve my memory.
As best I can tell there are a few main methods of how memory competitors memorize crazy amounts of information, and quickly at that. It’s not that they have super innate IQ’s, but rather have developed systems and tricks to help them store and retrieve large amounts of information.
One method of memorizing large amounts of information, and in order, is called the Memory Palace method, or some similar name. In this method you think of a house or location that you know very well, say your childhood home. And you break it down into a whole bunch of locations, or loci.
For instance, your front porch would be #1, a table by the front door would be #2, the dining room table would be #3, the kitchen counter would be #4, etc…
And then everything you need to remember, you simply place at each of your locations. So if you are going to need to learn how to memorize 100 items, you’ll need 100 locations in your Memory Palace. In addition, some experts suggest that you have a separate palace for each set of memories that you are going to want to recall. Which sounds like more work than I am interested in at this point of my memory growth.
Another method, called the Major System, aims to replace numbers with images, which are much easier to remember. Each number 0-9 is assigned a consonant or similar sound, and words can then be made out of those sounds. Vowels are made up by the user, it is the consonants that are important here.
In this method, zeros are assigned the s sounds, or soft c, and the number 3 is designated as an m sound. So for the number 03, you need to picture a short word that starts with an s and ends with an m, such as sum or sumo. And for 30, you might picture moss or a mess.
Again, this method didn’t naturally strike me as enjoyable, but rather felt like more work than fun, so I skipped it to focus on the Peg Memory System.
In the peg memory system, you assign a word or image to each number, and the only rule is that the corresponding words and numbers should be related in some way so that it makes sense to you and is easy to remember.
If you wanted to remember only a few items, say 10 or fewer, you need to associate an easy to remember image, or peg, with the numbers 1-10. Many people use rhyming words for short lists, such as nun or gun for the number one. And maybe shoe for two, then tree for three. I think you get it.
But what if you want to remember much longer lists? Then you need to assemble a longer set of pegs, and this is where the preliminary homework comes in. I would like to be able to remember the Constitutional Amendments in order, as well as all of the Presidents, so at the very least, I need a peg list of 27 for the amendments, and as of today, 45 pegs for the Presidents.
Once you have all of your pictures assigned to numbers, you then have to work on memorizing those combinations, so that they become second nature. When you see the number 19, you immediately know what your #19 peg is. I know mine, but I can’t tell you, it just happens to be the most inappropriate picture in my entire set.
Instead of recreating a virtual trip through a memory palace to remember who might have been the 23rd President, all I have to do now is create a memorable connection between my chosen image and the fact I am trying to recall. In this case, my peg is Michael Jordon in his Chicago Bulls #23 jersey, and the 23rd President is Benjamin Harrison.
Harrison was from Indiana, and when I was younger and watching basketball a bit, the Bulls and Pacers had a pretty big rivalry, so my connection between my peg and piece of information is picturing Michael Jordan wearing his #23 jersey and dunking over a helpless looking Benjamin Harrison in an Indiana Pacers jersey worn over his turn of the century clothes.
It is a ridiculous picture, and that’s the point. The weirder it is, and more personal my peg memory system pictures are, the better chance I have of remembering it.
How I Made Memory Flashcards
I chose to create 110 pegs, the numbers 0-9, plus 00, 01, 02, 03… through 99, to make my list more flexible and capable of converting dates and years into mental images and pictures.
For the numbers 0-9, I went with rhyming words, and for 00-99 I took some time and used an image that had some rationale for the association. For instance, my #18 peg is an 18-wheeler, a semi. Makes sense, right? My #06 peg is a six pack of Diet Coke.
I will share my entire peg memory system image list below, but remember, there is always a connection between the image and the peg number. Some of them are personal, and won’t make any sense for you, but that is part of what makes this list easier to remember than others, it fits me, it’s personal.
So, to make the cards… I went old school, and then reverted to digital. I bought extra thick 4×6 index cards for my flashcards. And while I would have preferred to hand draw and color each and every flashcard, given my lack of 2-D artistic skills, that would not have worked out very well.
And because my index cards were too thick to run through a printer, I went with labels to stick on each card. I created a file with the numbers for the front of the card, and printed those out on one set of labels, which you can see in the picture above.
My second set of labels was more time consuming and difficult as it involved finding Google images, or taking my own pictures, to print on the labels I would place on the back side of each flashcard. But spending that extra time and effort also helped me associate each image with each peg number, helping to seal that association into my memory.
After printing off both sets of labels, it was then a simple task of sitting down and matching them up and applying the labels to the index cards and making a big fat stack of Peg Memory Cards.
But we’re not done! We have to memorize these cards, and the best way to memorize these flashcards is to use a SRS, or Spaced Repetition System. If you are using actual real world flashcards, then your SRS would probably be a Leitner System or Leitner Box.
In this example of flashcards, to utilize the Leitner System, you would find a large box that can hold all of your flashcards, and then find some dividers. Using around 7 dividers, you set up a schedule to review your flashcards.
Go through some portion of your flashcards to get started, and if you know them cold with no problems, you move them from the first divider into the second division. Everyday, go through some or all of the cards in the first slot, and move the ones you get right into the second slot. Every two or three days, go through all of the cards in the second slot, and the ones you get correct get moved into the next slot.
Any cards that you miss, no matter which slot you are quizzing from, get moved all the way back to the first slot. No exceptions. You can find all sorts of schedules to use online, or you can make up your own, but the basics will be the same. Divider #1 gets reviewed everyday, #2 is about every other day, #3 is about every fourth day, etc…
Most of the schedules you will find online are geared towards studies over many months, so they won’t be helpful for a short term project, but you can devise your own schedule based upon whatever schedule fits your needs.
Another option is to go digital, as there are all sorts of online flashcard systems, and even a few Spaced Repetition Systems to choose from. To that end, I recycled the Google images I had printed out for my labels and completed a deck on Quizlet.com that allows me to quiz myself on my laptop, ipad and iphone without having to carry my box of flashcards around.
Another option, and possibly better in my opinion, is Anki, which is a software program to download onto your computer. It’s more difficult to use, and doesn’t look very good with an awkward interface, but it has a smarter algorithm that will repeat the digital flashcards you have the most difficulty with more frequently. And the cards you breeze through with no problem won’t be shown very often, because you don’t need the practice. So harder to set up but better long term.
I haven’t gone through the hassle yet of setting up my Anki deck, sticking with Quizlet for now, but have every intention of doing so.
One last note on studying, I found that I was having trouble with trying to bull my way through 110 cards at a time, finding that my mind would wonder and I’d have loads of trouble with almost all of the cards above 30 or so. To counter this, I broke my cards down into much smaller sets.
I felt confident with the first 20-30 cards after making them and studying only a few times, so I made my first sub-set the numbers 0-29, including the 00 and 01 numbers. Then I broke out the rest of the peg memory cards into sets of 10, so that all of the 30’s were in a set, all of the 40’s and so on. And then I just worked my way through until I had a new small set of 10 down cold.
After spending a few months on this project, I feel very confident with the entire set of my personalized peg memory system flashcards.
After all that prologue, here is my full list of peg words:
Personalized Peg Memory Images
0 – Zorro – Zorro is a “hero” that rhymes with zero
1 – nun – rhymes with one (I found a picture of a nun with a gun, a jarring image, but memorable)
2 – shoe – rhymes with two
3 – tree – rhymes with three (I went with the Whomping Tree from Harry Potter, memorable)
4 – door – rhymes with four (picture from my own front door)
5 – hive – rhymes with five (a picture of my brother-in-law’s bee hive)
6 – Fix – rhymes with six (local coffee shop right around the corner)
7 – heaven – rhymes with seven
8 – plate – rhymes with eight (a picture of one of my dinner plates)
9 – wine – rhymes with nine (a picture of a bottle from my kitchen)
00 – dragon – 2000 was the year of the dragon
01 – cyclopes eye – only have 1 eye
02 – feet – 2 feet (picture of my own two feet)
03 – traffic light – 3 colors on a traffic light
04 – table – 4 legs on a table (picture of my dining room table)
05 – starfish – 5 arms on a starfish
06 – 6 pack coke – 6 pack of Coca-Cola
07 – rainbow -7 colors in a rainbow
08 – octopus – 8 arms on an octopus
09 – cat – 9 lives for a cat (picture of my cat)
10 – soccer player – Pele wore #10 (I played soccer as a child and always loved Pele)
11 – goal posts – looks like goal posts, 1-1
12 – roses – a dozen roses
13 – box of doughnuts – a baker’s dozen doughnut from Krispy Kreme (I grew up eating these, but don’t eat them anymore!)
14 – gold earrings – 14 karat gold earrings
15 – cribbage – goal is to score points for 15’s (a game I played growing up with my father and now play with my son)
16 – candles – 16 Candles, the movie
17 – magazine – the actual Magazine, 17
18 – truck – 18 wheels on a big rig
19 – streaker – streaker on golf course for 19th hole (famous photo, Google it and you’ll understand)
20 – glasses – 20-20 vision, which I don’t have!
21 – black jack – card game, ace and king of spades
22 – small rifle – .22 caliber gun
23 – basketball – Michael Jordan’s jersey number
24 – clock – 24 hours in a day, wall clock
25 – presents – presents from Christmas Day
26 – marathoner – 26 mile marathon
27 – The Elephant Man – the Elephant Man died when he was 27
28 – calendar – only 28 days in February
29 – a frog – 29 days in a leap year
30 – mosque – Ramadan has 30 days
31 – champagne glass – celebration on New Year’s Eve
32 – compass – 32 points of direction on a compass
33- record – old school record, 33 rpm
34 – Walter Payton – running back for Chicago Bears jersey
35 – Mozart – died when he was 35
36 – Super Big Boggle – there are 36 lettered cubes in the game
37 – Van Gogh – died when he was 37
38 – roulette wheel – there are 38 slots on a roulette wheel
39 – ruby slippers – The Wizard Of Oz was released in ‘39
40 – Monopoly board – forty spaces on a Monopoly board
41 – Pearl Harbor – bombed in 1941
42 – Risk board – 42 territories on a risk board
43 – Licor 43 – Spanish liqueur (super gross drink I had with my son in Spain)
44 – Vick’s 44 – cough syrup
45 – US flag – end of of WWII in 1945
46 – double helix – DNA humans have 46 chromosomes
47 – silverware – 47 is the atomic number of silver (AG)
48 – map of states – 48 continental states
49 – Rocky Marciano- fought 49 times, and won 49 times
50 – 50 cent coin – half dollar with JFK
51 – Area 51 – hat tip to my nephew Nate who suggested this one, I was stuck!
52 – deck of cards – 52 cards in a full deck of cards
53 – joker – 53rd card in a deck of cards
54 – Rubik’s cube – 54 colored faces on Rubik’s cube
55 – Caesar – first invasion of Britain in 55 BCE
56 – Shirley Temple – had 56 curls
57 – Sputnik – the year that Sputnik went into space
58 – thunder cloud – 58 mph is min wind speed for T’storm Warning
59 – Alaska – admitted as a state to the US in 1959
60 – stopwatch – 60 seconds, timer
61 – Berlin Wall – built in 1961
62 – Fidel Castro – the year of the Cuban missile crisis
63 – Tab soda – Coca-Cola introduced first diet soda in ‘63 (my mom drank these, I grew up with these in the house)
64 – chess board – 64 squares on a chess board
65 – T Rex – lived 65 million years ago
66 – Polar Bear – the Arctic begin at 66 degrees
67 – God – 6 days to make the world, 7th day to rest
68 – White Album – The Beatles released album in ‘68
69 – astronaut – moon landing in 1969
70 – Gemini – Gemini constellation, the twins, born in 1970 (I’m a twin, born in 1970)
71 – highway – I-71 is a highway between Louisville and Cinci (I grew up in Louisville, drove on this highway frequently)
72 – golf clubs – 72 holes in a golf tournament
73 – liquid nitrogen – absolute zero is -273
74 – Delta 747
75 – Jaws movie – was released in 1975 (this movie scared me so badly, I’m forever scarred, won’t forget this one!)
76 – trombone – 76 trombones in the big parade
77 – slot machine – lucky 7’s
78- tarot cards – A Tarot deck has 78 cards
79 – Elvis Presley – 79 cumulative weeks #1 on Billboard charts
80 – hot air balloon – Around the world in 80 days
81 – space shuttle- 1981 was the year of first space shuttle launch
82 – hockey puck – the NHL season is 82 games long
83 – my dad – 8 kids with 3 wives (another personal anecdote that makes sense for me, but maybe not for you)
84 – book – Orwell’s book 1984
85 – microphone – from Live Aid’s concerts in 1985 (I really enjoyed listening to Queen growing up as a kid)
86 – waiter’s tray – 86 the salmon, we’re all out tonight (if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you’ll understand)
87 – Gettysburg Address – fourscore and 7 years ago… (that equals 87 years in case you were wondering)
88 – piano – a piano has 88 keys
89 – Simpsons – first episode of The Simpsons aired in 1989
90 – Polaris – star the north pole star is 90 degrees overhead
91 – Monticello – my wife graduated from UVA in ‘91
92 – Centre College – I graduated from Centre College in ‘92
93 – our galaxy – 9 planets and Earth is 3rd
94 – wedding ring – I got married in 1994
95 – briefcase – working 9 to 5
96 – Olympic Rings – from the first Olympics in 1896
97 – Tiara – Princess Diana died in 1997
98 – computer screen – Windows 98
99 – red balloons – the song 99 Red Balloons (another song from my childhood)