​ Never Forget Shit! Memory Palaces and Party Tricks

It's the second Thursday in December and you've reluctantly agreed to go to your spouse's holiday party. Free food, free drinks, but at the cost of burning a night and mingling with a bunch of people who you've never heard of before and will never see again.

 Alejandro? Timbo? Kleeb?

Alejandro? Timbo? Kleeb?

Now you're 20 minutes into conversation with the boss' boss when you realize -- you have completely forgotten his name. Charlie? Chuck? Xander? Fuck. It's too late to ask now. Might as well just call him 'dude' and bail outta there. But what if there was an easy way to remember people's names, not just on the same day, but even months later? Does it sound like magic? Would you like me to stop asking leading questions?


It turns out, people suck at remembering...things. Period. But like most of the human body, the brain doesn't come with an instruction manual. And like most complex things, your intuitive sense of how best to operate may be completely off base. Enter the insanely interesting Josh Foer and his illuminating screed MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN. Taking a year out of his life to delve into the annals of competitive memory -- which, yes, does exist -- Foer dives deep into not just the world of these so-called mnemonists, but the systems they use to remember, say, 80,000 digits of pi off the top of their head.

 We're gonna need a bigger pie. 

We're gonna need a bigger pie. 


People suck at remembering names, and for good reason. Names aren't connected to anything -- just a sound to put with a face -- so your brain can't really associate it with anything, and associations are the bedrock of memory. There's a nifty phenomenon called the Baker/baker paradox, where people forget the name Baker with ease, but when they're told that someone IS a baker, tend to remember it with far more accuracy. That's because when you hear the name Baker, there's nothing immediately to latch onto. Maybe your college roommates girlfriend (definitely don't latch onto that). But think of a professional baker, and images of delicious bread, fantastic smells, lively bakeries all jump to mind. Those associations help cement the idea of 'baker' in your mind. So how do you remember names?

Make them visual. Foer's example is his own name -- Josh Foer. Josh sounds like joshing, so you picture yourself joking around with him. And Foer? Sounds a bit like four...so you picture him breaking into four pieces. So the next time you see whats-his-name's face, you have an amusing visual that will pop instantly to mind -- joshing and breaking into pieces. Like all these tricks, it'll be funky at first, but also like all these tricks, IT WORKS. I haven't forgotten Josh's name since!

 Thanks, Grant!

Thanks, Grant!


Mnemonists often get a rise out of civilians by instantly committing numbers to memory -- phone numbers, serial numbers on money, random strings of digits -- and to any layman that's pretty damn magical. But there's a simple trick that, you guessed it, relies on the visual. And it's called...

The Major System

0 = S
1 = T or D
2 = N
3 = M
4 = R
5 = L
6 = Sh or Ch
7 = K or G
8 = F or V
9 = P or B

You associate every digit with a letter/sound, and chunk them together to create images. 333-5296 becomes MMM-LNPCh. Where do you go with that? Eating a delicious (MMM) peach (PCh) that's speaking Latin (LN). Et Tu, Fruite? The possibilities are endless -- and I'll be remembering that cheeky Latin peach for longer than I'd care to mention.

The Next Level

Not satisfied with these simple strings? Fruits of various ethnicities still haunting your visual memory? For more complex tasks, such as memorizing a deck of cards in under 2 minutes, pros turn to the Person-Action-Object (PAO) system. With this, every card (or digit 0-99 in the case of numbers) is anchored to a person, an action, and an object. Then you chunk 3 cards together by including the Person of the first card, Action of the second, and Object of the third.


2 of Hearts is Tom Hanks tapdancing on an airplane

5 of Diamonds is Obama cycling at the Superdome

King of Clubs is Jay Leno doing a handstand on a skateboard

So a run of 2 of Hearts, 5 of Diamonds, and King of Clubs becomes Tom Hanks Cycling on a Skateboard. Another image that's hard to forget! And when it comes to crafting your own images for the PAO system, don't be afraid to get bawdy and crude. The mind remembers novel stuff. But you may have to take your family out of any images you've got -- thinks can get X-rated pretty quick.

 The things these hands have seen...

The things these hands have seen...

So you've got this novel image -- Tom Hanks cycling on the skateboard -- but that's just 3 cards out of 52. How do you keep the remaining 17+ images in your head? That's the biggest trick of all:


Every given soul in the competitive memory world uses the amazing trick of the Memory Palace to keep info stored. As we've laid out, memory is best stored when its visual, so the best way to keep a chain of memories linked together is by anchoring it in a physical location that you keep in your brain -- a memory palace.

It works best with some place intimately familiar (though in time you'll have an entire cadre of palaces at your disposal) -- so let's start with your childhood home. That image of Mr Hanks cycling on the skateboard? That's at the bottom of your driveway. The next stop (or 'locus' as the pros call it) is your front door, where the 3, 6, and Jack of Diamonds combine to make Walter White stabbing the Mona Lisa. Then into the living room, kitchen, upstairs, encoding these images along the way. With the PAO system, it'll only take ~18 stops to memorize an entire deck of cards. The only thing you need to know by rote is your anchors for each card. With those locked down, you'll be able to remember all 52 without much fuss at all.

So at the next holiday party, remember Chucks name, memorize his credit card and social security number, and bet him a million dollars that you can memorize an entire deck of cards. Or, don't do any of that. But smile with the knowledge that you COULD, because your memory is one of the most programmable aspects of the fleshy computer you call a brain.