How to remember numbers easily

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 that has been around since at least the 1600s, which substitutes speech sounds for numbers, enabling you to memorise otherwise meaningless numbers by creating words and images 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.

The Major System

In the Major System, the numbers 0 to 9 are linked to sounds – the sounds that make up the English language, known technically as phonemes. Importantly, these do not correspond directly to the 26 letters of the English alphabet, because there are more sounds in English than there are letters. For example, the sound th (as in think) needs two letters to represent it, as does the sound sh (as in show). So it’s important to think in terms of sounds rather than letters.

Each number is represented by one or more of these sounds. Notice that, for all the sounds for a given number, your mouth is in the same position.

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 (2) and (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.)

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

A simple example

  • 92 = p/b + n = pine, or bone, pain, bean, pony, penny
  • 13 = t/d + m = tame, time, dime, dome, team, tome, Tim
  • 78 = k/g + f/v = goofy, coffee, cave, give, cove, guava

So if your bank account number is 921378, you could chunk that into 92-13-78, and choose a word for each of those three chunks – for example, pine dome coffee (pine for 92, dome for 13, and coffee for 78).

Now comes the important part: choose one image to represent the words. You might 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. Mmmm.

What you have just accomplished is this: you’ve reduced the challenge of memorising six things (the six digits) into the challenge of memorising just a single image.

Having done this, the next time you need to send someone your bank account number, 921378, you’ll first think of Pine Dome Coffee, then you’ll type the number while saying: pine… that would be 92… dome… that’s 13… coffee… 78… aha! And there it is.

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. It takes advantage of your brain’s strengths instead of trying to rely on one of its weaknesses.

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.

For example, 71810 could be rendered as cat photos, cat videos, cat feeds you, God fighters, gut voters, kitty fads, caught foot sigh, cow toffees, get fatso, Gaddafi dies, activities…

One thing you’ll discover after delving into mnemonics is that choosing absurd, shocking or obscene images gives you a much greater chance of remembering their content. Gaddafi dies, for example, is much more memorable than activities. As a rule of thumb, the more emotional or sensory content you can evoke with the image, the more useful it is as a mnemonic.

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.