There’s a reason phone numbers are made as short as possible. We struggle to remember more than around 7 digits*, so a new phone number is just within our capacity to quickly remember. But we all can use simple memory techniques that make it easy to memorise phone numbers, long strings of numbers or even pages of digits. And these techniques were in use millennia before telephones were invented.
Why do we struggle to remember numbers?
Numbers on their own are abstract – they don’t exist as a natural object. Numbers are an invented human system. It is hard for our mind to capture and remember abstract concepts without any concrete association. The same problem exists with names, another abstraction created by our inventive, social minds.
Can memory techniques help to memorise numbers?
Memory techniques create an association for hard-to-remember abstract numbers with something concrete and memorable – an entertaining image and movement filled story. This simple concept taps into the strongest areas of our memory, where we naturally remember imagery and spatial details.
The techniques are scaffolding or attaching new number information onto images and movements that you already know.
What memory technique do you use and is it hard to learn?
A code that links each number to an image and a movement.
As with reading, for numbers you first need to learn an ‘alphabet’ – a number memory code. When we first learn to read it is a struggle to recognise this new but with practice you quickly become proficient and will gain a valuable life skill.
There is a bit of upfront effort here, but I have seen with my memory students that anyone can get a great memory for numbers reasonably quickly. It’s also great training for your focus and is very stimulating. It is fun.
Best of all – it really works.
Let’s learn an example number memory code
The first step to being able to remember numbers is to create and learn a number code.
How complex your code needs to be depends on a few questions. How much time can you put in during the learning phase? How long are the strings of numbers you want to regularly remember?
Below is an example of a basic number memory code of just 10 images so you can quickly understand how it works. This small system can be memorised very quickly – in even half an hour. Yet I have seen memory students be able to accurately recall hundreds of numbers in one night using it.
You can easily make your own system and swap out any of these images to one that is easier to remember for you. I will also expand in further blogs on how to create your own system that is bigger, quicker and less repetitive.
Read through the following table.
Notice as you read it that the image has been chosen in part because it ‘looks’ at least a little like the shape of the number. Each number in this code has two parts – an image and a movement.
||Wick bursts into flame
||Swimming in water
||Triangle shape is drawn
||Giving a high five
||Swings through the air
||Slithering up out of a hole
Using the number code
Learning and using such a simple code is easy, just follow these steps:
1. Read through the list a few times and strongly visualise each image and its movement.
2. Look away from the list and test yourself by running through the numbers 0 to 9.
For 0 you should see a plate spinning mad fast, for 1 a candle with the wick bursting into flame,…for 8 a snowman being built one snowball at a time and so on.
3. Start to combine the codes. This step is important to grasp.
When you read any number break it into groups of 2 digits. Then translate the 2 digits in the following way:
– The first digit becomes the image for that digit.
– The second digit becomes the movement for that digit.
Let’s try this in action
If you read the number 80 you translate it into a snowman spinning :
– the first digit is 8 – the image for 8 is a snowman
– the second digit is 0 – the movement for 0 is spinning
A 49 is a pink flamingo (4) slithering up out of the ground (9).
A tricky thing to do – but very memorable : ) Careful, does it bite ?
And 42 is a pink flamingo (4) swimming in water (2). (Or the meaning of life, of course)
Note that if you get two of the same digits, say 11, you simply see the original code – a candle (1) where the wick bursts into flame (1).
Try to visualise a few sets of two digits now. Test yourself with 89, 77, 31, 90, 45 and 62.
Note, every object can be ‘alive’ and there are no set rules. Ie. a snowman can fly, and a golf club can give a high five. In fact, the more ridiculous you make these mental cartoons the easier they are to remember.
As with anything the more you practice the faster you become. And don’t feel disheartened if there are points where you struggle. Sticking with our alphabet analogy you have learnt the letters of the alphabet for the first time and are spelling out the word C…A…T.
Now follow along below and see how you go with a longer string of numbers.
Example of how to use memory techniques to remember 12 numbers
If you are like most people and I give you 12 random digits 004163579585, chances are you would not quickly remember them, as they mean nothing to you. In fact, if you are like I used to be you would have simply skimmed over them.
Let’s now read those same digits with our code filter applied to create the following tale.
Notice here to remember longer strings of numbers we ‘chunk’ the information into groups. Every 2 digits are an image (as we practiced above), but we now will group 6 numbers together in one ‘story’. Story One is 004163 and story Two is 579585.
Really try to visualise what you are reading and add as much cognitive processing of the story and senses as you can. Make it real, question what it actually looks like and why this story may be happening and how it would feel in real life.
If you know how to use a memory palace you can place each chunked story in a new loci in the palace. Using a memory palace provides a strong path for your stories and extends your ability to remember a list of numbers to be nearly unlimited. If you don’t know how to use memory palaces, you can check them out here.
But you don’t need a memory palace for 12 digits in 2 stories – it should stick without problems.
- 00 A dinner plate is spinning
- 41 On the middle of this spinning plate is a pink flamingo holding a candle.
The poor flamingo looks sick from dizziness and the flame of the candle is flickering
- 63 A golf club bravely tries to come to the rescue of the flamingo. To stop the plate spinning by moving around the plate and carefully touching the edge of the edge, forming a triangle shape in the air as it moves.
Just next to this story (or at the next location in your memory palace) you see a second side story:
- 57 A hand is busily chopping some vegetable for dinner.
- 95 A snake approaches with its hand held up ready to give a high five (yes, I know snakes don’t normally have hands). The snake’s hand gets chopped off by the knife as it passes and blood splatters out
- 85 A snowman standing idly by gets splattered with the snake blood, but it doesn’t mind. It holds up its hand ready to give the knife a high 5 (for stopping the snake).
To recall the numbers
1. Go back and see if you can see story one and two. Don’t worry about the number translation at this stage, just see if the images and story are there accurately. If you have issues at any point, go back and read it again, really visualise it and then try again. If your issues persist, problem solve it – for example perhaps you confuse the golf club that creates a triangle around the plate – because that’s not a good way to stop it spinning. In that case look at the story and note the frustration on the golf club’s head because it is not able to stop the plate – it just bounces off each time. Try again with this stronger image.
2. Once you have the stories in your head try to say or write out the numbers while visualising the images. While you are new to the code this is a bit tricky but keep focussing on the rule that the first digit in every two is the image and the second digit is the movement. In time this translation will become second nature.
Voila! Suddenly, a more memorable 004163579585.
Practice your number code to become fast
After you have created your code, get to know it inside out, so that it is second nature to remember it. Practice is the secret sauce. The first ten digits should be memorised in a few sessions, followed by a quick revision daily to cement it.
You may wish to double your efficiency by learning a larger code, for example a 2 digit code of the numbers from 00 to 99. Then try to learn 10 numbers daily and practice recalling them throughout the day.
If you would like to see another example showing this same code in use, follow this video and memorise 20 digits of Pi.
Is it worth it?
Having learnt to remember numbers as an adult, I strongly feel that every child should be taught in primary school how to use and practice their own number memory code. By the time they are adults they would all be able to easily remember numbers that are hundreds of digits long, a skill they would keep for the rest of their lives.
As adults, learning and using these techniques sharpens our mind and puts a spring in our mental step.
And for those who work in finance or any field where knowing numbers would be beneficial, becoming proficient with numbers is a no brainer way to become a super brain at work.
Whatever your background, a bit of effort up front to learn and practice a number code means you will have a powerful memory tool for life. Take advantage of your brain’s ability to remember images using already known associations.
And new phone numbers will be a breeze 🙂
Want to get good at memorising quickly? Take a look at my step by step Master Your Memory course. If you need a bit more guidance Master Your Memory Plus includes one on one coaching.
(*) Miller, George, (1956) The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information, Psychological Review 63, 81-97, http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Miller/