“6 Degrees” Memory Feat

Published on Friday, April 14, 2006 in ,

Kevin BaconHere's something you don't see often - a new, original memory demonstration! I came up with this idea while reading Mental Floss magazine, in which Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings has a column in which he's challenged to link two different concepts together in less than 6 degrees of separation, such as linking Kevin Bacon to Canadian Bacon, or Eminem to M&M's. If you're not familiar with the basic “6 degrees” concept, this Wikipedia article will explain further.

My concept for this feat is as follows: You have 10 cards, each with the name and/or photo of a particular movie celebrity on them. These are dropped into a bag, and two of them are randomly chosen (no force!). The performer is then able to link one actor to the other in a minimal number of “degrees”! The performer points out that there are 90 (10 * 9) different ways the first two cards could have been selected, and that they will repeat this feat with two more randomly selected celebrities, raising the possible combinations to over 5000 (10 * 9 * 8 * 7 = 5040) potential combinations!

I don't have a definite closer, but I was thinking that you could close by having all but two of the remaining names read off, and you correctly identify the two names not given AND link them together!

Now, how exactly would you go about this? The first thing you would need is a list of celebrities. Since the “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon” game is usually done with movies, I figured it would be best to stick to movie actors. Also, I figured that I should choose successful actors with long careers, so the ones I choose could be used for as long as possible. So, I started with the Forbes Celebrity 100 list, in order of “Power Rank”. Next, I took out all the directors, producers, sports stars, authors and other people who didn't act in movies, and whittled my list down to the following people (in alphabetical order):

Jennifer Aniston
Tom Cruise
Johnny Depp
Mel Gibson
Nicole Kidman
Julia Roberts
Will Smith
Denzel Washington
Oprah Winfrey

This list has the advantage of containing people who have had long careers in the movies, and won't be soon forgotten (hopefully).

Now, how are we going to remember all the links required? Would linking everyone on a list of 10 with each of the other 9 people require remembering 90 different lists? Not quite. Because a list from actor A to actor B is really the same as the list from actor B to actor A, only backwards. So there's really only 45 lists to remember, not 90. For example, the path from Jennifer Aniston to Tom Cruise is just the reverse of the list from Tom Cruise to Jennifer Aniston.

So, what I did was open up a spreadsheet program, a put the above list of actors along the top row, as well as down the leftmost column, making sure to do so in alphabetical order. Where each pair of different names meet will be the list of connecting movies and actors.

Now we come to one of the more important questions - How do we find all the links we need? Isn't that going to take a lot of time to find all 45 links? Without any help, it would. Thankfully, the Oracle of Bacon at Virginia comes to the rescue! Using this site's Star Links search, you can get a list of all 45 links together in about 10 minutes!

As I researched the links, I added them to the spreadsheet, until all the links were done. I always made the links from the person whose last name came first alphabetically, to the other person (I'll explain why shortly). So, I would put the link as going from Denzel Washington to Oprah Winfrey, but not the other way around.

Next, I use the basic linking technique to link the lists together. As visual images are needed, and movies are highly visual, these links are often quickly retained. When I'm not familiar with a linked actor or movie, I can either look them up in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to strengthen the links and/or use the substitute word method to help remember those links better.

Fortunately, all the actors on the list I created only have, at most, two intermediate movies and one intermediate actor to link them. The intermediate links always go movie-actor-movie. The link between Jennifer Aniston and Tom Cruise would read “Bruce Almighty-Morgan Freeman-War of the Worlds”, meaning that Jennifer Aniston was in Bruce Almighty with Morgan Freeman, who was in War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise.

Memorizing each link is somewhat akin to the Memory Chart concept. Since each person on the list, except Washington and Winfrey (who I think of as “Wash” and “Win” for the following purpose), have last names beginning with different letters, I think of words that can be created with those letters, and use those as links. Here are a few examples:

Jennifer Aniston and Tom Cruise=“AC”=“ACe”
“ACe”=“Bruce Almighty”+“Morgan Freeman”+“War of the Worlds”

Johnny Depp and Denzel Washington=“DWASH”=“Dirty WASH”
“Dirty WASH”=“Donnie Brasco”+“Zeljko Ivanek”+“The Manchurian Candidate”

(Fortunately, the Oracle of Bacon includes links to the IMDb, so you can learn more about the intermediate actors, if needed.)

Once you do this for 45 links, you're all set! With a flash card program that uses spaced repetition, such as SuperMemo, Genius or Studycard Studio, (all of which I've discussed before here and here) you can learn these quicker than even you may have thought!

Also, as time passes, you can add more and more actors to the list if you want. Who knows? Instead of having people draw the names of movie actors, you could get to the point where they simply name any well-known movie actors, and you can give the links!

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3 Response to “6 Degrees” Memory Feat

7:40 PM

I like the idea!
But where is it? Do we get to see this cool chart?

11:36 AM

My original idea was simply to have you work out your own chart with the above information.

However, if you wish to see the chart I created, you can find it at:


It's 3 pages, so you'll need to print it out, and arrange the pages from left to right.

9:08 AM

Hey Scott. Dunno if you're aware of a short-running UK radio 4 show called "Tau of Bergerac"? At the end of each show, Will Smith (comedian and writer, not the more famous one) would link any film the audience shouted out to an episode of bergerac in 6 moves or less. It's a good demonstration of this effect.