Ancient Book Reveals Memory Methods: Storytelling Mnemonics

Ace Taking Exams and Remember Grocery Lists

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

What’s the easiest way to memorize a complex set of facts? Link them to a story! This is possible even for series of numbers, as Dr. Restak demonstrates.

Wooden numbers on black background
Memory techniques enhance a person’s ability to recall a long string of information. Photo by romeovip_md / Shutterstock

Ancient Memory Methods

The oldest book on memory, written sometime between 80 and 82 BCE, is called Rhetorica ad Herennium. It recommends linking items to be remembered with places and images. This method is similar to the one used by Simonides, the reputed inventor of mnemonics, when he named every single guest who had died under a collapsed roof at a banquet by linking his memory of each guest with his seating position. 

One way you can use this memory technique is to mentally place objects from a grocery list in locations in your living room. Imagine yourself walking through the room and observing the objects where you placed them.

“My personal method is to memorize a dozen neighborhood sites,” Dr. Restak said. “I rehearse them for a long time, forward and backward. Now I know them very clearly. Then I take each of the items I want to remember, like a grocery list, and compose a vivid bizarre image of that item on a site that I have in my memory.” 

For example, one of the sites is a library. If he’s going to the store to get a Coca-Cola, he might see a Coke can reading a book in front of the local library. 

“My personal list is my home, #2 as I mentioned is a library, #3 is a photo store, supermarket, Georgetown Medical School, the main gates of Georgetown University, Café Milano, Key Bridge, the Iwo Jima Memorial, and Reagan Airport,” Dr. Restak said. “I take the items I want to remember, and I form an image as clear as I can make it.” 

He then places the images in front of those sites. As he mentally strolls along his memory pathway, he sees all of those things.

You can make up your own personal list of places in your neighborhood. It could be in your house or apartment as well, but Dr. Restak recommends the neighborhood because it’s more expansive and you can contain larger items in your imagination. 

You practice the list until you can rapidly name it and see it. Then you place memory items in these pegs.

Memories and Stories

Dr. Restak also suggests that you try the story memory method. Try to remember these words via a story: log, candy, shoe, tie pin, watch, ring, comb, and wallet. Come up with a story that is bizarre, wild, and vivid. 

Here is one: A log dressed as a man walks along the street eating a candy bar. He’s quite dapper with Bruno Magli shoes and gold accessories (tie pin, a watch, a ring). Behind him is a pickpocket pretending to be combing his hair as he slips his hand into the log’s pocket and extracts the fat wallet.

The story method works for numbers but not as easily. Most of us use letters and words but not so much numbers. It’s harder to mentally “see” numbers compared to envisioning objects. 

Dr. Restak recommends this method to work with numbers from 0 to 10: 0 is hero, 1 is sun, 2 is shoe, 3 tree, 4 is door, 5 is hive, 6 is sticks, 7 is heaven, 8 is skate, 9 is vine, and 10 is hen. Thus, whenever you see those numbers, you substitute those images. 

If you have a number like 2023627834, you can repeat it using the above mnemonic to create a vivid story image. For example, to get the 202, imagine your favorite sports hero holding a shoe in each hand. 

How about a power saw reducing a tree to sticks for number 36? For 27, imagine an angel playing a shoe-shaped harp. 

For 834, imagine a skate shaped like a tree coursing over an ice pond and crashing into a barn door. That gives you all the numbers: 202 362 7834.

Associating and Elaborating

Take those words and those numbers and make up your own story. You will be associating and elaborating—the two most basic memory techniques. 

Try associating something new with something you are already familiar with: “I know a dermatologist whose name is Dr. Spot.” It’s not very difficult to remember his name because Dr. Spot suggests the skin. 

Others are not so easy. Use elaboration to give meaning to what you are trying to memorize. Devise a sentence or a code. 

“While in medical school, for instance, we had to learn the cranial nerve starting with the olfactory nerve and going all the way down to the 12th nerve, the hypoglossal nerve,” Dr. Restak said. “We had this mnemonic: ‘On old Olympus’s towering tops a Finn and German vied at hops.'” 

The planetary sequence can be remembered by the mnemonic: “My very educated mother just sent us nine pizzas.” That’s for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

A highly recommended source for memory techniques involving verbal material is Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas’s 1974 The Memory Book. It provides an in-depth exploration of many of the memory methods described above.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.