Hack Your Memory

Imagine a fire hydrant being lifted high into the air by a large helium balloon. It goes higher and higher, but suddenly gas starts to leak out of the nozzle, which makes it sound like it’s trying to talk… but with a distinct lisp. A colorful bumblebee then lands on the balloon, licks it, and says “really yum!”  Then the bee takes out its stinger and bores on to the balloon. It pops, causing the fire hydrant to come crashing down. It smashes into a military jeep causing a massive explosion… as if it had been destroyed by a car bomb. Fortunately, the owner of the jeep, a general, was out on his rowing boat at the time. He likes to row his boat at night, and is known as the “night-rowing general” around the base. He was rowing with a bit more exertion than usual, and had to don an oxygen mask to help him breath. But the mask was full of fluoride, which turned his teeth bright neon colors.

You’re probably wondering what the hell you just read. Maybe you’re thinking the author had a stroke. Has the site been hacked? Maybe it’s a prank? What if I told you that you’ve just memorized the first 10 elements of the periodic table.

The Night-Rowing-General via Memorize Academy
  • Fire hydrant – Hydrogen
  • Helium balloon – Helium
  • Lisp – Lithium
  • Bee says “really yum” – Beryllium
  • Bee “Bores on” – Boron
  • Car bomb – Carbon
  • The night-rowing-general – Nitrogen
  • Oxygen mask – Oxygen
  • Fluoride – Florine
  • Neon teeth – Neon

Much of your memory is stored in the form of associations. Encoding things you need to remember into a silly story takes advantage of this fact. The memory of a ‘night-rowing-general’ is already in your head. You can see him in the theater of your mind… rowing his boat under a black sky… the silver stars on his green hat reflecting the moonlight. Associating this visual representation of the night-rowing-general with the term ‘Nitrogen’ is very easy for your brain to do.

You’re probably already familiar with this type of learning. Does “Bad Boys Run Over Yellow Gardenias Behind Victory Garden Walls” ring a bell?  It’s nothing new. In fact, storing memories in the form of mental images was the preferred memorization method of the scholars in ancient times. Today, it has allowed people to perform staggering feats of memorization. Want to know how [Akira Haraguchi] was able to memorize 111,700 digits of Pi?

Sherlock Holmes often uses a memory palace. Image source: Chess News: Memory Techniques: Memory Palace, from Roman times to today

The Memory Palace

It turns out that it’s really easy for the human brain to create and store mental images. The more silly and outrageous the image is, the easier it is to store. But what do you do when you have a lot of things to memorize? We know how to turn information into silly images, but how do you keep the images organized? There are two ways – One is to fit the images into a story like we did with the periodic table above. A better, more efficient technique is to store them in what is known as a Memory Palace.

The Method of Loci is the official name for the technique of storing images in a mental placeholder. This mental placeholder is a place that you must know well. A place that you can stroll through in your mind with little to no effort. The easiest place for most people is their childhood home. This is the place where you will store your images… your memory palace. When you want to recall the stored information, you simply walk through your memory palace and view your images. Let’s begin with a trivial example of memorizing a short list of parts for an upcoming project –

  • Raspberry Pi 3
  • Six Neopixels
  • Two Red LEDs
  • Two Nema stepper motors
  • 20×4 LCD

The first goal is to encode the parts list into images that are already in your brain. The second goal is to store the images in your memory palace. Before we start, keep in mind that the images need to already be memorized. For instance, you can’t try to associate “Nema” with “Norma” Jean if you have no mental image of Norma Jean. And remember that the more silly, outrageous, ludicrous, exaggerated, etc. the images are, the easier they will be to recall. Let’s start –

A three-foot-wide Rasperry Pi sitting on the dining room table. Imagine steam rising from it and try to smell it. Make it make your taste buds water.

Mmmm Raspberry Pi via Pillsbury

Keanu Reeves flies in through a large window in your kitchen. He holds out both of his hands – palms up. His right hand has six fingers, each fingertip has been replaced with a neopixal that’s strobing different shades of blue. His left hand has only two fingers, both of the fingertips are glowing red LEDs.

As you walk up the stairs, you see a family member. Their eyes have been replaced with stepper motors. Imagine large yellow flags on the ends of each shaft. Each motor is spinning outward and the flags are sweeping their hair outwards causing it to brush up against the walls.

In your room, your TV has been replaced by a giant 20×4 LCD. It’s on, and in each character’s place, there is a screen that’s playing different sporting channels.

And there you have it. Now this part list is forever etched into your memory. Keep in mind that memory palaces can be any place you know well. If you need a larger one, all you need to do is explore a new place until you know it. You can even make memory palaces in VR.

Memory Champions

Notice that you can walk through your palace in any order. The information is stored asymmetrically. This is a key advantage over the story method (like in our periodic table example), which is linear. When you’re storing large amounts of information, having the ability to backpedal and deviate becomes necessary for accurate recall. As you can imagine, people have pushed the method of Loci to its limits. It’s how people can remember 100,000 digits of Pi, the order to several decks of cards, strings of binary numbers, or just about anything in only minutes.

In the book Moonwalking with Einstein, [Joshua Foer] (to remember this name, think of him joshing you and then breaking into four pieces), writes about his journey into the world of memory athletes and how he became one himself. In competition, many competitors wear large earmuffs and glasses that have been blacked out except for a small pinhole. Concentration is critical when you’re walking through large, elaborate memory palaces.

If you’re interested in further research on the method of Loci, I encourage to read Joshua’s book. Have any memory hacking techniques of your own? Please share in the comments!


Moonwalking With Einstein, by Joshua Foer. ISBN-978-0143120537

Memorize the Periodic Table, by Kyle Buchanan. ISBN-978-0987564627


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