The mind is a curious thing. How many times have you left your house and couldn’t remember if you left the oven on… or how many times in your life have you put down your keys and completely forgot where you put them almost instantly. The reason why we do this is because our mind, in an effort to be more efficient does not remember things it deems unimportant. That is why you drive to work every day but for the most part don’t remember anything about the trip. If you remembered every little detail your mind would be overloaded with information. But… there is one exception to this. If you were on your way to work and saw something out of the ordinary, something unusual, you would remember that. Not only would you remember that, but depending on how unusual it was you would remember it for quite some time.
This same principle is why we are not able to remember things like numbers, lists, presidents, periodic tables, or anything else we try and get to stick in our minds. I like to use the example that we can look at our credit card number a 1000 times in our life and have no idea what is, but we can recall a funny story that someone told us once from years ago with ease. It is using this idea, creating something unusual, that we can memorize numbers, lists, or pretty much anything else super fast.
For example… if I told you a story that one day while visiting the White House, Marilyn Monroe was standing hill outside literally got hit in the face by a low flying duck! … you wouldn’t forget that.
Well… that is exactly how I remember that James Monroe was the 5th president of the United States and took office in 1817.
You might be thinking right now… what the hell is he talking about?
What I have done in this example is coded the boring information that I want to remember into a memorable crazy story that I won’t forget. I’ve created a list of code words, that are personalized to me, that I use to build my crazy stories of things I want to remember. For example, when there is a hill in my story I know that means the number 5, when there is a duck in my story I know that there is the number 17. I have a whole list of things that I always use to represent each number… and I have an easy mnemonic system to remember what word goes to that number as a backup if I forget. I used Marliyn Monroe on a hill instead of James Monroe because I don’t know what James Monroe looks like… even if I did, I think that Marilyn would stick in my mind a lot better.
I’ve used this system to memorize literally all of the presidents and the years they took office. How much time did it take me to do this? About 10 minutes. I literally did this while waiting for someone who was running late at a bar.
I memorized every winner of the World Series since 1905 in the time it took me to ride the subway to work.
That being said, I had to memorize my code words first. Which I used the Ultimate Major System Game to do this in a couple days, but after learning the code words I can pretty much memorize anything super fast.
Also, one important thing I didn’t mention above. I used the setting of the White House to set apart this set of things that I’ve memorized. So a hill at the White House guides me to the 5th president. A hill in a baseball stadium guides me to who won the world series in 1905…
The system of turning numbers into words or images is called a Peg System, how I remember what word goes with what number is using a mnemonic system called the Major System. Both are explained in much greater detail here: Intro to Memory Systems