The spectrum of human memory potential: Daniel “Brainman” Tammet beats blackjack and Japanese schoolchildren become human calculators.
Numbers, or digit strings, are considered by many mnemonists and cognitive scientists to be the most difficult data to memorize. If numbers are both abstract and difficult, how did Hideaki Tomoyori of Japan memorize PI to more than 10,000 places? How did my classmate in Tokyo also multiply four-digit numbers in seconds?
The answer is proper encoding, or translation of the abstract to the concrete. Hideaki used what I’ll teach you here, whereas my classmate used a phantom abacus like in the above video.
The average person can only hold seven or fewer numbers in their working memory at any given time, using vocal repetition as an aid. Using proper encoding, trained subjects can memorize all of the area codes in the United States within a 24-hour period… By encoding abstract data first as letters, then as nouns, one can accurately store and recall hundreds of items (images) both forwards and backwards.
This introduction to encoding will provide an overview of the consonant system mnemonic, which encodes numbers as consonants of the English language. In this system of encoding, vowels (a, e, i, o, u) have no value, nor do w, h, or y. Numbers are converted to consonants, which are then converted to nouns and images. Bear with me — the examples make this simple to use.
Here are the encoding pairs that Tomoyori used to recall 10,000 numbers without error. Numbers are encoded as indicated below, and suggestions for remembering the pairings are provided in parentheses:
1 = t (also th) or d (single downstroke)
2 = n (two downstrokes)
3 = m (three downstrokes)
4 = r (the last letter of “four” is “r”)
5 = L (you have five fingers on your Left hand)
6 = j, ch, soft g, sh (“J” is a near mirror-image of “6”) (Ex: Jelly, CHips, garaGe, SHoe)
7 = k, hard g, hard c (“7” side-by-side with a mirror image form a sideways “K”) (Ex: Kite, Goat, Cat)
8 = f, v, ph (“8” is similar to the lower-case cursive “f”) (Ex: Flame, Vest, graPH)
9 = p or b (9 is a mirror-image of “P”)
0 = z, s, soft c (0 signifies “zero”) (Ex: Zipper, Scarf, iCe)
Using the above conversion table, 8209 could equal “fan” (82) and “soap” (02), thus a fan made of soap. If you can then place one such composite image at 20 preselected locations (loci), you will memorize 80 numbers with ease. Numbers are converted to words by the phonetics (sounds), and spelling is unimportant. Thus: 8762 = FKSHN = fikshun = fiction (vowels possess no value). Use whichever vowels you want.
Likewise, repeated letters are represented by a single number unless two separate sounds are made: 3230 = MNMS = Minnie Mouse (“nn” represents the single 2).
The second step is to take each image, made from 2-6 numbers, and place them in a sequence. The loci method uses preselected and familiar locations:
1. Choose a familiar route marked intermittently by outstanding features. Horizontal sequences are easiest to use: streets, hallways, room perimeters, etc.. Using the path from your bed to the shoe rack as an example, the following locations could serve as placeholders for your composite images: bed, bedroom door, staircase, kitchen table, shoe rack.
2. Associate your composite images, in appropriate order, with the predetermined locations. To memorize the number (905) 811-3710, you could follow this sequence:
a. PAISLEY (905 = PSL) sheets on your bed
b. A huge PHOTO (81 = FT) of yourself plastered on your bedroom door
c. Princess DI (1 = D) sitting on your staircase
d. A huge MUG (37 = MG) on the kitchen table
e. TIES (10 = TS) where shoes should be in the shoe rack.
By mentally tracing your loci route, you produce (905) 811-3710. And guess what happens if you trace your route backwards, taking into account the order of letters? 0173-118 (509). This combination of encoding methods automatically permits you to recall digit strings both forwards and backwards!
Encoding, and improved abstract recall, can be used to learn 500 foreign vocabulary words in a single 12-hour session, increase IQ testing results by 20-30 points, or memorize all of the ticker symbols on the NYSE.
Increase your recall capacity by 500% and you can effectively quintuple your lifetime learning capacity. Learn to efficiently encode the abstract and the results can be superhuman.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.