In today’s digital society, everyone from your bank to your office to your parents in their new ZIP code, want you to memorize numbers and codes. Here’s how
In today’s digital society, we’re constantly being inundated with new numbers: telephone numbers, credit and debit card numbers, ZIP codes, PINs, passcodes and more. Even if you program everything into your iPhone or Blackberry, it’s still going to be easier — and more secure — to keep some frequently used numbers in your head.
That’s easier said than done. Unlike words, numbers can be particularly difficult to memorize because they’re abstract. Case in point: Five years after my parents moved to their new home in Florida, I still can’t remember their ZIP code. I have to look up the darn thing every time I send a card or package.
“Anything that has no meaning to you is tough to remember,” says neurosurgeon Larry McCleary, author of “The Brain Trust Program.” “If I say the word ‘cat’ and you’ve had a cat, or even if you’ve seen a cat, it will bring up all these memories of that cat and you’ll remember the word, no problem. But most of us don’t have any emotional attachment to particular numbers.”
So if you want to remember numbers, you’ve got to find the meaning in them. We’ve talked to McCleary and other memory experts about how to memorize numbers, from four-digit PINs to your 16-digit credit card number. Here are their top tips:
Create associations. We all have numbers that mean something to us: birthdays, anniversaries, a favorite NASCAR driver’s number or the number of 10-cent wings you can devour on all-you-can-eat wings night. The secret to remembering new numbers is to find connections between the number you want to remember and the numeric memories that are already firmly lodged in your brain, says Scott Hagwood, who had to memorize 800 numbers in perfect sequence, among other tasks, to become the first American “Grandmaster of Memory.” If you’re having trouble coming up with an association for a number, try moving on to the next number, Hagwood says, since that may trigger a memory that you can use to link to the first number. For example, he says, “If I’m trying to remember 5817, but can’t think of anything to associate with 58, I’ll move to the number 17. As soon as I do, the song ‘At 17’ by Janis Ian comes to mind. As the music plays in my head, I imagine a now 58-year-old Janis Ian singing the song.”
Break long numbers into smaller parts. The average person can hold only about seven arbitrary units of information at a time in working memory. But by “chunking” or organizing the items in some way, you can greatly increase your recall capacity, says Thomas Crook, author of “The Memory Advantage.” (This is why phone numbers are broken into groups of three digits.) Want to see how it works? Try memorizing this sequence: 7814921945. If you interpret it just as a string of 10 separate numbers, you’ll have a hard time remembering it. But if you recognize two meaningful dates in the sequence, you have only three chunks to recall — and remembering it is no problem.
To remember a long number, I just tell a story with those images in head.
|— Scott Hagwood|
“Grandmaster of Memory”
Look for patterns. For longer numbers, look for relationships in the numbers. Do the first two add up to the third one? Do you see a sequence of odd or even numbers? Then use those patterns to create a story with the more arbitrary numbers. For example, if the number is 6700 0123, note the pattern “0123” and figure out how it can be remembered using 6700, Hagwood says. You could say something like, “Well, once I spend my credit limit of $6,700, I’ll have to start over at zero and build it back up again one dollar at a time — 1, 2, 3.”
Learn actively. Our muscles have better memories than our brains, so don’t just think the number, McCleary says. Say it out loud at least three times. “When you say it, your brain has to tell the muscles of your mouth how to say it and your ear has to hear the words and pass them along,” McCleary says. “It forces you to use a lot more of your brain.” And don’t stop there. Try writing the number down a couple of times, or even singing it to a memorable tune.
Repeat it. Once you’ve memorized a number, set a timer and think of it (and the associations you’ve made with it) again one hour after you’ve learned it. Research shows that one hour after learning something is the time when the memory is most vulnerable to forgetting, misinterpreting or degrading the event in some way, Hagwood says. Repeat the number again after 24 hours, then again after one week and finally after a month. “The idea is to repeat the information just as you are about to forget it, in expanding increments of time, so it sticks in your long-term memory,” Hagwood says. “Whatever is left after 30 days you’ll probably be able to hold onto.”
Visualize the shape the numbers make on a keypad. A lot of people use this technique for phone numbers, but it’s also useful for credit card numbers, PINs, ZIP codes and more, especially if you’re a visual person, Dr. Crook says. It’s particularly useful for numbers that form obvious patterns, like a straight line, an “X” or an “L.”
Convert numbers to words or images. If you’re ready for more advanced techniques, consider assigning the numbers 1 through 9 a letter equivalent: A=1, B=2, etc. So if your new PIN number is 2737, say, you’d convert it to the letters BGCG. Once you think of a sentence with those letters, such as “Bad Guys Can’t Get,” as in “bad guys can’t get this number,” you’ll be able to recall it more easily.
Competitors in memory competitions, such as Hagwood, take it one step further. Hagwood has created an image or an action for each number from 0 through 99. So 23, for instance, makes him think of Michael Jordan and 43 represents the UNC Chapel Hill mascot, a ram. “To remember a long number, I just tell a story with those images in head,” Hagwood says. “It may seem like a lot to remember, but the more you practice, the better you get.”
OK, so now that I’ve got the tips, I decide to give them a try with my parents’ ZIP code: 34201. I don’t see any patterns in the numbers, and they don’t form a memorable design on a keypad. I try creating chunks: 34, 342, 01, but none of those numbers have any meaning for me. I ask Hagwood for advice. “Type the numbers into Google and see what comes up,” he says.
I do it. “34” brings up with nothing. I type “342” — another dead-end. Then “201.” Bingo. All sorts of websites referencing “2010” come up. That’s easy enough to remember. Now I’ve got to figure out how to tie it to the first number, 34. Hmmm, my brother is 34 this year. That’s it! To remember the ZIP code, all I have to do is recall this sentence: “My brother is 34 in 2010.” Piece of cake.
But will I still be able to remember it an hour from now, and next week? The odds, experts say, are on my side.
See related: Emergency PINs to summon help at ATMs?,