Give it a sense: the key to memorizing anything


“No one is going to remember a random number or a random list of words,” said Alex Mullen. It’s advice worth listening if you are keen on sharpening your memory. At the U.S.A. Memory Championship, he set two national records, in speed cards and speed numbers. To set the speed-numbers record, he had memorized more than five hundred and fifty sequenced digits in five minutes. “It’s really all about taking things that don’t make any sense and giving them some sort of strong visual meaning. People are much better at remembering those sorts of things.” One technique he employs is called the Major System. Each number is assigned a letter or sound. When put together, these phonetic values can become numbers. Thus, number seven is a “guh” sound. Three is a “muh.” Two is a “nuh.” Thus, seven-three-two, or 732, becomes “guh-muh-nuh,” which he assimilated into the word “gaming.” Based on that, he imagined an Xbox controller, so number “seven-three-two” became that electronic game device. And thus, numbers were translated into sounds that, put together, were made to resemble character and object names. In the Major System, these objects populate “mental palaces.” Memorizing the sequence therefore amounts to a walk in the palace where every item, and every space, is attached to a number. In the final round that earned him victory, he had to memorize decks of cards. He remembered the correct card, that left all his competitors out: “Seven of clubs.” When the judge declared him the winner, Mullen lingered in his mental palace, as The New Yorker reports. In his imagination, he was in his college recreation center, at Johns Hopkins. Mullen “closed his eyes and took a second look at the image that had brought him to victory: the Notorious B.I.G., sitting on a television, holding the skull of his worst enemy.”

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