Memory progress

One of the things I like about being a seventeen-year-old again is that I can permit myself to learn things that are of general use, with no immediately apparent practical application. If you choose your projects carefully, they can make the rest of your life easier and/or more rewarding, no matter what you eventually find yourself doing.

For example, one such project, which I did complete successfully back when I was seventeen for the first time, was learning to TOUCH-TYPE. This skill has served me well — extremely well — over the years, especially since computers became omnipresent. Of course, at the time I studied it, I was aware that touch-typing would be a useful skill, but I had no idea just HOW useful it would turn out to be.

Sure, you can learn to type pretty fast with the hunt-and-peck method, but you have to look at the keyboard while you’re doing it, and in any case you can ALWAYS type faster when you know how to touch-type properly. Have you ever had a good idea which you put off developing because it would require some serious time at the keyboard? This never happens to me. I can type almost as fast as I can think — at least when I’m thinking carefully — which means I can put my best thoughts down on “paper” with very little effort. And, since I don’t have to look at the keyboard, I can constantly read what I have written and refine it. The benefits are enormous. (I am not the only person to feel this way. It is easy to find people on the Internet extolling the virtues of typing skills.

Anyway, one such general skill I wish I had developed 41 years ago is MEMORY. I actually have a pretty good memory (except for geography and history), but I am not talking about natural memory. I am referring to systematic ways of remembering things you have consciously decided to memorize.

For years I have had a book by Harry Lorayne called “Instant Mind Power”, which I found on a remainder shelf somewhere. (It so happens that my copy was printed in 1967, well before I was seventeen!) Among the “mind power” techniques it covers is a number-memorizing system known as the Major System, which I briefly described in an earlier post. On a couple of occasions I have half-heartedly tried to learn it, but I’ve never really mastered it. This time I am really giving it my all. Thus far I have passed through four stages:

  1. Learning the sounds associated with each digit, plus some short words to associate with those sounds in numbers from 1-20.
  2. Making a list of words for ALL the two-digit numbers, which I can recall when I need them by sounding out the desired consonants. For example, if I see the number 67, I think, “Let’s see, SH or CH or J plus a vowel plus K or G …, umm, ah, CHALK.”
  3. Learning these words IN ORDER, using a fantastic story. This makes them easier to recall, especially when I need them in numerical order.
  4. (my present stage) REALLY memorizing these two-digit number-words, so that I don’t have to waste time sounding them out or remembering the story. I should see “67” and immediately think “CHALK”. Learning the system at such an automatic level is a little like learning to touch-type really well: Since it’s so much faster, I am more likely to use it, which means I will get still faster at it. A virtuous circle!

(Some people REALLY take this system to extremes, creating and memorizing a list of all 1000 three-digit numbers. I have no plans to take it that far.)

Like most people, I already have images associated with many numbers. For example, I know that “73” means “best regards” for ham radio operators, “43” is a brand of liqueur and “(19)84” is the title of one of my favorite books. These numbers, which already have concrete meaning for me, are easy to associate with my new number-words. For example, I see “84” and immediately think of George Orwell’s dreary London on FIRE (F + R = 84) (even though this didn’t happen in the book).

For those numbers which I already have associated with something concrete, this works very well, but there still remain about a third of the numbers below 100 for which I can think of no particular association. For example, the number “47” means nothing extra-numerical to me (except that it’s one of several primes), so if I want to associate it with ROCK (R + K = 47), I don’t really have a strategy, apart lots of repetition. I supposed I could look up “1947” in Wikipedia and find lots of things which happened that year (in fact I just did). But anything I find will be a NEW association to learn, so I might as well just try to remember that “47 = ROCK” without further ado.

The numbers I am learning are 0-9, 00-09 and 10-100. I have made 111 flashcards, which are very helpful. (You have to print them on both sides of the page, so it is advisable to use thick paper. And I used A4 paper, so if your paper is American “letter” size — 8½ × 11 inches — you’ll probably have to reformat them a bit.) I use the flashcards to study at home, but when I walk the dog, I have an even better opportunity to practice my numbers: Spanish automobile license plates have four digits (plus some letters, which I ignore), and the streets of Seville are FULL of parked cars. As I walk past them I try to come up with two words for each plate. I see 2045 and immediately think “NOSE-RAIL”. If I see 2047, however, I have only one “instant word” prepared, so it takes longer. I have to think “NOSE, and then R + K/G which must be … um … ROCK.” (Incidentally, since starting this practice, I have noticed that for some reason there are an inordinate number of “89”s in my neighborhood.)

The only downside is that I am getting behind on my podcast listening, which is normally what I do on my dog walks. Oh, and I have to be careful not to stare too long at the car license tags or people will start to think I’m from the CIA or something. 🙂

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