How to Memorize Lists

by thememorypage

1.4 • Techniques for Memorizing Lists

Memorizing Short Lists

Suppose you’re going to the store for groceries and you need the following five items: eggs, bread, bacon, cheese and milk. How can you remember the list? For short lists, the easiest way is simply to “link” the words together in a long chain, like this:

   eggs -> bread -> bacon -> cheese -> milk

Then, think of some animated story in your mind to link the items together. For example, imagine walking to the store with a grocery bag in your hand. We start with a grocery bag because it’s a grocery list — it would be difficult to jump immediately to eggs. On a street corner someone appears from nowhere, hands you an egg then walks off. Dazed, you take the egg and drop it in the bag. It cracks and makes a mess. (The mess is a vivid picture in your mind that strengthens the picture of “egg” even more.) So by the time the next person comes out of nowhere and hands you a loaf of bread, you don’t want to put it in the bag, so you carry it in your other hand. You hold it by the tie and it twirls as you walk.

This is a long story so far, but remember, you’re not writing a story on paper, you’re just thinking of it in your mind, so it goes rather quickly. In fact it often goes so quickly through your mind that the added, extra detail is very helpful in remembering later. The more ways you experience an object — if you think of its appearance, its touch, its smell, etc. — the more likely you’ll remember it later!

Suddenly, there’s bacon on the sidewalk as you’re walking, and it crunches under your feet. The grease gets on your shoes. Next there’s cheese on the ground, and you walk on it. Yuck! Now there’s grease and gooey cheese on your shoes. When you get to the store, there’s no restroom or water fountain, so you, strangely, just take a gallon of milk, open it, and pour it on your shoes to clean them! (Don’t worry, this is only imagination — you would never do this in real life!)

Wow, what an exciting finish to the story. Notice that we didn’t just put all the grocery items in the bag one by one. The instances would be so similar we’d get them mixed up! So a lot of variety was used. The story was so fun that, no doubt, you can stop right now, look away from this document, think through the story again and remember perfectly the five items. Try it again tomorrow morning and see if you still remember!


Memorizing Long Lists

The grocery list was easy, but what about longer lists, such as a list of all of the states of the United States? If you forget a word in a middle, the chain is broken and you’ve lost the rest! Also, if you want to remember the 15th state — useful if you memorized the states in order of population or size — you have to recall the first fourteen. Another way to memorize lists is to use what are called”peg words.”

Before we begin, memorize this short list of peg words. Note that they are numbered, and the peg word actually does translates into the correct number, so you should be able to form some associations right away.

1.Hat 2.Hen 3.Ham 4.Rye 5.Hill

Practice recalling the peg words before continuing.

Now, let’s use the peg words to memorize a list of the five biggest cities in Michigan, in order: Detroit, Grand Rapids, Warren, Flint and Lansing. We’ll take each of the peg words and place them next to each item in the cities list. Next, we’ll form some simple paired associations between the words. Note that instead of making a huge chain, we are now working with only pairs.

No Peg Item Association
1 Hat Detroit Picture large top-hat with Model T cars stitched on it in an interesting pattern
2 Hen Grand Rapids Hen steps into a river then is quickly carried away and gushes through rapids
3 Ham Warren Ham on platter is given to Warren Beatty (movie star) who looks at it oddly
4 Rye Flint Start with rye bread. Use Flint and steel to make spark to burn the bread!
5 Hill Lansing The hills are alive with the Sound of Music (movie)! The whole land begins to sing!!

After studying the above associations, cover it up, then look at the five peg items by themselves. Can you name all five cities on the list? Hopefully, you can. Note that we’ve solved our problem. Our long chain of items has been changed to a numerical chain, an easy list of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. These correspond to a certain peg item, which, after a little practice, you can easily name. Finally, we associate simple pairs of words: the peg words with the actual list of items. You probably could have done it easily by using the short list method — I didn’t want to give you a huge example so fast — but it’s obvious that this method would be very helpful for long lists (like the 50 states).

To memorize longer lists, all you need to do is memorize a basic set of peg words, words which are derived from their associated numbers directly. Some example words are given below; you can also come up with your own. Try to come up with the shortest possible words for your list, because many different words can stand for a number, and you want to reduce the number of possibilities. (When memorizing numbers that aren’t peg words, you can use longer words, because in that case, you will only be converting words to numbers, and a word always produces a unique number.)

1. Hat   11. Dot     21. Net    31. Mat    41. Road     2. Hen   12. Town    22. Nun    32. Moon   42. Rain     3. Ham   13. Dime    23. Name   33. Mummy  43. Room     4. Rye   14. Tire    24. Nero   34. Mower  44. Aurora     5. Hill  15. Doll    25. Nail   35. Mule   45. Roll     6. Shoe  16. Tissue  26. Notch  36. Match  46. Rash     7. Cow   17. Duck    27. Neck   37. Mug    47. Rock     8. Ivy   18. Taffy   28. Knife  38. Movie  48. Roof     9. Bee   19. Tape    29. Knob   39. Map    49. Rope    10. Toes  20. Nose    30. Mouse  40. Rose   50. Lace

The peg words method for lists is great for lists of items that must be in a specific order, because peg words are tied to specific numbers. Assuming you’ve previously memorized the five peg words, note how easily you can come up with the 4th item — just go 4… rye… Flint — without having to go through items 1 through 3 first. For unordered lists, where the assigned number is not important, you could even exchange items in the list to come up with easier associations.

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