One of the most useful things you can do to improve your memory is to invest some time and learn the Major System. This is a mnemonic system which substitutes speech sounds for numbers, enabling you to memorise otherwise meaningless numbers by creating words out of them. I use it to remember my credit card number, bank account details, passport number, pin numbers, phone numbers, passwords, and so on.

How it works

Remember, the numbers are linked to sounds, not letters. You have to pay attention to the sound your mouth is making, not the written letter. Here’s how it works:

0s or z
/s/ = cats, /z/ = dogs
1t or d
2n or ŋ (/ŋ/ = sing)
3m
4r
5l
6ʃ or ʒ or or
/ʃ/ = cash, /ʒ/ = measure,
/tʃ/ = check, /dʒ/ = jazz
7k or g
8f or v
9p or b

(The weird symbols you see in (6) are from the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). This set of symbols is the one used in dictionaries next to the word entry, explaining how to pronounce the word. Actually, all the letters above are part of the IPA; they just happen to look like regular English alphabet letters.)

Notice that, for all the sounds for a given number, your mouth is in the same position. This makes it easy to learn.

Now, when you come across a number you want to remember, substitute each digit for one of the corresponding sounds. You can use any vowel sound to fill in the gaps. By doing this, you can find words that match the number.

A simple example

  • 92 = p or b + n = pine or bone
  • 13 = t or d + m = tame or time or dime or dome or team
  • 78 = k or g + f or v = goofy or coffee or cave or give or cove

So if your bank account number is 921378, you could choose pine dome coffee as a link to the number. Then you could visualise a giant dome in the forest made of pine trees which houses a gourmet coffee roasting plant. People come from all around to sample this incredible Pine Dome Coffee. From the top of the dome, a pine tree hangs down from the center, where its leaves occasionally fall into the silo, infusing the coffee with a robust, earthy flavour.

Then, next time you need to send someone your bank account details, you’ll first think of Pine Dome Coffee, then you’ll type the number while saying: pine… 92… dome… 13… coffee… 78… aha! Ridiculous? Yep. But memorable. Time-consuming? No. With practice, you’ll be able to construct these images in a couple of seconds. Your imagination will thank you for the workout, too.

The human brain is poor at remembering numbers. It’s pretty good, but not great, at remembering words. But it’s excellent at remembering spatial information. For example, compare the difficulty in remembering a phone number you heard multiple times to remembering the layout of a place you visited only once. This is what makes the system work so well.

Getting advanced

When you’re ready to go deeper, you can extend the system to give you more word choices. Any unused consonant sounds like w or y or h can be used wherever you want to fill gaps.

Example: 71810 = cat photos, cat feeds you, God fighters, gut voters, kitty fads, caught foot sigh, cow toffees, get fatso, cod videos, Gaddafi dies, activities, gay diver haters…

Note that the examples above use my own version of the system, which has a slight tweak, since my Australian accent doesn’t have the “rhotic R” (the R at the ends of syllables, such as in car). This means that for, say, a Canadian, car would translate as 74 (/ka:r/), but for me, it’s just 7 because I say /ka:/. To make up for the ensuing lack of possible words, I included /θ/ and /ð/ (/θ/ = th as in thin, /ð/ = th as in this) as possible sounds for 4.

Hopefully you’ve already thought of a few good ones yourself. Here are some ideas for inspiration:

  • 666 = cha-cha-cha
  • 2013 = anxiety Maya ;)
  • 1492 (Columbus reaches the New World) = water weapon
  • 1969 (first human on the moon) = debut ship
  • 3.281 (metres to feet ratio) = many feet
  • 1.609 (miles to kilometres ratio) = Dutch subway
  • 1452-04-15 (da Vinci’s birthday) = diarrhoea aliens riddle (what? I bet you remember it.)

Once you get the hang of it, check out Pinfruit.com and Jonathan Ströbele’s Major System Database.

A fantastic book to check out if you want to know more about mnemonic techniques is Josh Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein.