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How to Memorize Numbers, Part 1

Learn the first part of a memory trick that will help you turn numbers into mental pictures so that you can remember them forever. Then try your hand at a few practice problems before learning the second half of the technique in the next article.

By
Jason Marshall, PhD,
February 3, 2012
Episode #092

Page 1 of 2

The seconds are ticking away and the world is relying upon you to get a huge bomb defused before the timer reaches zero and disaster strikes. The screen flashes 10…9…8…. The trick to stopping this bomb is to punch a top-secret stop-the-bomb-at-the-last-moment code into a little keypad next to the flashing timer. You were told the 10-digit code over the phone while en route to the scene, but unfortunately (as so often seems to be the case) you didn’t have a pen to write it down.

How could you possibly remember such a large number in an adrenaline-pumping situation like this? Should the people of the world be worried about their safety? Of course not. Why? Because “Secret Agent Math” is back on the scene! And just as in all of your previous mathematically inclined adventures, you’ve got this one covered. What’s your secret? Like any good math secret agent, you know how to memorize numbers. Which is exactly what we’re talking about today.

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What Is the “Major System”?

One method for memorizing numbers is called the Major System. There are other methods that you can use too, but since the Major System is the most popular, we’re going to stick with it for today. The main idea behind this system for memorizing numbers is to turn the individual digits of a number into consonant sounds, and then to add in vowel sounds to help you turn those consonant sounds into complete words. After that, all you have to do is turn those words into a memorable picture in your mind. If that picture is memorable enough, you won’t forget it!

Then when you need to recall your number just picture that unforgettable mental image, turn the words describing the objects in that image back into consonant sounds, turn those consonant sounds back into digits, and…voilà…you’ve got your number back! Sounds easy, right? Okay, maybe not exactly easy, but at least the idea is pretty straightforward. In practice though using this technique does take some…well…practice. So let’s go step-by-step through the process and see how it all works.

How to Turn Digits Into Letters

The first step is to turn the individual digits in your number into consonants. Each of the numerals from 0 through 9 receives its own letter. There are lots of ways you can do this (and you should feel free to make up your own), but here’s one common way to do it that’s described on Wikipedia:

  • 0 → “z” or “s” since “z” is the first letter of “zero” and “s” kind of sounds like “z”

  • 1 → “d” or “t” since they’re both written with 1 vertical line (just like the numeral 1) and they have a similar consonant sound

  • 2 → “n” since it’s written with 2 vertical lines

  • 3 → “m” since it’s written with 3 vertical lines and actually looks like a sideways “3”

  • 4 → “r” since it’s the last letter of “four” and since “4” and “R” are almost mirror images of each other

  • 5 → “L” since “L” is the Roman numeral for 50 (which at least has a 5 in it)

  • 6 → “j,” “sh,” “ch,” or soft “g” since a script “j” has a lower loop like a 6, “sh” and “ch” sound kind of like a “j,” and a “g” looks like an upside-down 6

  • 7 → “k,” hard “g,” or “q” since a capital “K” looks like two mirror-image number “7s” back-to-back, and because hard “g” and “q” kind of sound like “k”

  • 8 → “f” or “v” since a fancy cursive “f” looks a bit like an “8” and because “v” sound a lot like “f”

  • 9 → “b” or “p” since “p” is a mirror-image of 9 and “b” sounds a lot like “p”

Okay, as you can see, some of these are kind of a stretch…but they do all make at least some sense and serve as pretty good mnemonics. Of course, this list is a lot to remember. Which means you aren’t going to become an expert at this technique by simply reading through the list once. Learning to memorize numbers will take some work, and that work begins by learning to use your own set of conversions (or the ones we just talked about) to turn numbers into consonants.

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