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Mnemonic devices for remembering short numbers

Memorise only what you need

Often, for an exam, you only need to remember a handful of short numbers. Even if you’re trying to remember a date, you won’t need to memorise all four digits, because the century and even the decade when an event took place may be obvious.

If I was trying to memorise the year of the first moon landing, I already know that this took place in the 1960s, but not the specific year, so I only need to create a mnemonic for the number nine.

Location, location, location

Any mnemonic that requires you to visualise images needs to be strongly associated with what you’re trying to memorise. For the previous example, I might picture the number nine on the side of a space rocket, like the number on a racing car. To remember a pin number, I might picture the object outside the local branch of my bank.

This is a good example of the simplest technique – picturing a short number written in a striking way. It might be spray painted on a wall, or be the number on a football shirt.

Guilty by association

An easy alternative is to picture something associated with the number. You might use a pack of playing cards to represent 52, a jury for 12, a calendar as 365, Snow White as 7, or even the nice man who lives at number 62 on your street.

From numbers to objects

The key to memorising lots of numbers is to convert them into things that you can easily picture. There are a couple of ways to do this directly.

The Sounds-like technique (each number rhymes with the corresponding object):

  • 0 – Hero
  • 1 – Gun
  • 2 – Shoe
  • 3 – Tree
  • 4 – Door
  • 5 – Hive
  • 6 – Sticks
  • 7 – Heaven
  • 8 – Gate
  • 9 – Wine
  • 10 – Hen

The looks-like technique (each number has a shape that resembles the corresponding object):

  • 0 – egg
  • 1 – pencil
  • 2 – swan
  • 3 – ear
  • 4 – yacht
  • 5 – hook
  • 6 – cherry
  • 7 – cliff
  • 8 – snowman
  • 9 – balloon
  • 10 – baseball bat and ball

Both these techniques are very easy to remember but are hard to extend past ten. There are advanced number to object systems which work well for larger numbers, which I’ll cover in the next post.

Distinguishing objects that signify numbers

In a long mnemonic there may be a lot of objects relating to different types of information. For example, in a mnemonic about Henry the Eighth, there may be an image of two doors to indicate that he was a monarch in the house of Tudor and a cherry (the ‘looks like’ technique) in a wedding ring box to indicate that he had six marriages.

If you want to make it obvious that the cherry should be converted into a number, there are many different ways that you can do this: you can make mental images of numerical objects in black and white, or of representations of the objects (statues, models, pictures, images on a TV screen, and ornaments). Another popular method of distinguishing specific objects is to mutilate them, so the cherry might have a bite taken out of it. Whatever method you choose, they only work well if they are used consistently.

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