Hacking Memory Techniques

Published on Thursday, February 02, 2012 in , , ,

Taro Taylor's Scrabble tiles photoIt's one thing to learn an established memory technique. There are times when you want to remember something, but ready-made systems either can't handle the information itself, or bring up the information in a way you need.

The solution is to develop your own memory system. Not only is it possible, but if you do so, you'll have the satisfaction of not only remembering what you need, but also of knowing that you created the way to handle it.

What if you wanted to memorize all the 2-letter words allowed in Scrabble? That's the example we'll look at in this post.

A post titled “Hacking Scrabble,” provides a wonderful look at the approach one blogger used to meet this challenge.

Although it doesn't specifically say so in this article, I imagine that the person who wrote this article looked at the existing mnemonic systems used by Scrabble players. The most-used memory system here is called anamonics (a portmanteau of anagram and mnemonics), and is a way of recalling all the individual letters that could be added to a set group of letters to form legal Scrabble words.

The problem with using this approach is that anamonic lists generally start with three-letter words, not two.

The first step in working on the system was getting as much of the information needed together as possible. In this case, there's a readily-definable set of all the needed words:

aa ab ad ae ag ah ai al am an ar as at aw ax ay ba be bi bo
by ch da de di do ea ed ee ef eh el em en er es et ex fa fe
fy gi go gu ha he hi hm ho id if in io is it ja jo ka ki ko
ky la li lo ma me mi mm mo mu my na ne no nu ny ob od oe of
oh oi om on oo op or os ou ow ox oy pa pe pi po qi re sh si
so st ta te ti to ug uh um un up ur us ut we wo xi xu ya ye
yo yu za zo

Presented this way, the 124 words seem overwhelming. The next step, then, is to look at exactly how you're going to need the information.

Since it's Scrabble, you're probably going to be looking at a given letter on your tile board, and wondering with what other letters you can use. This suggests that the words be organized by their first letter, followed by a list of possible letters with which that letter could be used. The advantage of this is that now you can start with one of 26 known letters and work from there. Here's the list the original poster developed:
a: abdeghilmnrstwxy   j: ao                 s: hiot
b: aeioy              k: aioy               t: aeio
c: h                  l: aio                u: ghmnprst
d: aeio               m: aeimouy            w: eo
e: adefhlmnrstx       n: aeouy              x: iu
f: aey                o: bdefhimnoprsuwxy   y: aeou
g: iou                p: aeio               z: ao
h: aeimo              q: i                 
i: dfnost             r: e
Now the information is arranged in a more useable way. As so often happens at this point, you realize that there's no simple pattern that will take you from the information you have to the information you need.

So, what we need now is a way to make the information more meaningful. The original post goes into great detail about how this was handled. Basically, the poster realized that words could be made from the letters, and decided to find a list of suitable words. Please read the original post to see exactly how this was done.

The particular mnemonic phrases developed and used by the author are listed in this file. If you scroll down to the chosen mnemonics, you'll note that a new problem developed. Some letters were only associated with consonants, and others were only associated with vowels. As you can see from the above list, some are also associated with just one other letter.

Does this mean that the approach won't work? No. Almost half the alphabet was handled by the anagram approach, which is a good start. From here, you might add on simple additional rules or systems to handle the exceptions.

For example, how do you deal with the lack of consonants that go with the letter u? The only letters that go with it are: shtgnmrpt. What if we turned the disadvantage into an advantage? We could remember that u doesn't go with any other vowels by remembering “u is unique.”

We could then add vowels to make words out of the letters above, as long as we later recall that the vowels are only placeholders, and not to be used with the letter u. The letters shtgnmrpt then become the more memorable phrase: “more shotput gun” (or a similar phrase you prefer). The other letters could be handled in similar ways.

Once you've developed meaningful way to handle all the information, don't forget to put the information together in your mind with the link system! If you don't make the time and effort to remember the information you've organized, then there was no need to organize it in the first place!

Since you know you're always going to start with a single letter in this case, how do you give each letter a memorable image? This article features a great approach to using letters as memory pegs about halfway down, under “Alphabet peg mnemonic system.• You simply remember a as hay, b as bee, and so on.

This works especially well in some cases, as linking a to the letters abdeghilmnrstwxy becomes a matter of linking hay to “my exhaling bedstraw.” Picture a pile of hay exhaling straw perfectly ready to use as bedstraw, and you've got the image locked in!

The short version of creating a custom memory technique for a specific situation is to get as much of the needed information together as possible, consider how you'll need to actually use the information, organize it accordingly with a focus on grouping as much information together as possible, and find a way to make the needed information meaningful. Since there's often no pattern to the information we need, creating wild and bizarre imagery is often the best way to do this.

Have you ever created your own original memory system for a given task? I'd love to hear your story in the comments!

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1 Response to Hacking Memory Techniques

10:26 PM

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