Scribbles in the Sand

All About My Life in Taiwan


How to Remember thousands of digits, and have perfect Chinese tone recall.

**Disclaimer**  If you have no interest in learning memory techniques for dates, statistics, NI numbers, credit card numbers etc, then it’s probably best if you don’t read on.  I’ll also discuss potential applications for learning Chinese towards the end, although only briefly as I’m still fumbling around with which techniques work best.

So after 3 days of using the memory palace technique (loci/journey method) I can tell you that it is an amazingly simple yet effective method for remembering, at the same time as being quite fun.  Any spare moment where you would normally play on your IPhone can be spent exploring your favourite holiday location or home town.

I’ve only looked at the physical lists once for my geological eras, prime ministers, presidents, European countries and capitals, African/S.American states and now rivers, but I can tell you that I can remember with about 90% accuracy despite not opening a book more than once.

I challenged my girlfriend to remember the 10 Largest countries and their capitals in 15 minutes and she was able to make a journey within 10 minutes, which she can still remember with ease.

Now, I’ll try and keep this next section as brief as I can because I fear I’ve got too involved in this memory technique business, (as is my want), and thus things that I find interesting are perhaps deeply boring to others. Feel free to slink off now, or read on to unlock the secrets of the universe…

O.K, for those that stayed for the performance, here we go…

I, and most people struggle to remember numbers. The limit to our mental capacity is 7+-2.  You can expand this by chunking information, thereby filing your 7 brain slots with 7 chunks.

However, these numbers are rapidly forgotten because they have no inherent meaning or relevance and are in no way interesting.

Elaboration is the key to Long Term Memory (LTM); Taking otherwise boring material and thinking of it in a way that sticks.

These techniques are a crutch to let you remember  long enough that they transfer into your cortical, LTM brain regions.

The Dominic System:

Back to numbers. The Dominic system has a few laws, which turn numbers into letters using the first few of the alphabet.


First, the numbers 0 through 9 are simply remembered as things that look like the number, so 1=pencil (long and thin) 2 (swan) 4 (sail boat) etc.  Now, if you want to remember item 4 on the shopping list, you stick that item on the sail boat and have it in a particular location in your memory palace. Easy enough.

For larger digits, it gets trickier, and has a massively steep learning curve but which once mastered is limitless in its application. (I’m nowhere near this yet).


Large numbers, dates and facts above 10 are remembered as double digits. The numbers 1-9 are given an appropriate alphabet letter

1A 2B 3C 4D 5E 6S** 7H 8I 9N**

**(six sounds like s and nine sounds like n.  You can pick whatever works).

Now, to remember 16 we pick the letter A.S. To make this memorable, we think of a person with those initials;  Arnold Schwarzenegger for instance.

Here is where the difficulty comes in. You have to make initials for every combination of letters from 00-99! AND their associated action (Arnie posing in trunks?).

I’m still struggling to think of people with initials, but some googling can help you build a reference list. Try finding 10 new people a day and it shouldn’t be too daunting.

I’ve yet to complete this process (Any help on B.E, C.S, and C.G?) but have used it to remember the lengths of the 10 longest rivers in England with very little effort. I can now recall these with few issues, and didn’t once have to stop and wonder what number goes with what. It just works.

For example, number 6 is the Ure at 208 km.  Ure sounds like manure. I imagine a river of shit streaming across the bridge near my house.  208 is split into the double digit 20 and 8 left over.

Find the alphabet letters 2=B 0=O which equals B.O (Barack Obama). He is swimming in this shit river. Because it’s a 3 digit number, we use one of the images from the numbers 1-9 list (1=pencil 4=sail 8=sand timer.)  So B.O swimming in manURE timing how long he can hold his breath for using the sand timer (8).

Sounds long winded, and it is somewhat, but it sticks. Then all you have to do is recall the event when you approach the bridge.

This has allowed me to remember all 10 rivers, and 30 digits without too much hassle other than walking from the pub to the park.  And it lasts. Walk this route 5 times (minutes later, 1 day, 3 days, 1 month, and 3 months and you’ll never forget it.

Mandarin Application.

Mandarin has 4/5 tones for each sound you utter. Each tone alters the meaning so saying shui4 jiao4 and shui3 jiao3 has two different meanings (sleep and water dumpling).

You can assign a colour to each tone (which helps massively), and when making a memorable image, incorporate the colour into the picture. However colour slips my memory quicker than a person and the order of the colour is hard to remember.

There is little talk of using the Dominic system on the Internet in this way, but I think it could work. So Sleep (Shui4 Jiao4) = 44 = D.D (who is this? You decide. Try picturing David Duchovny watching you while you sleep.  BOOM, perfect tone recall.

I use red as my fourth tone so I used to make the image red (blood on the sheets?), but with this I can have both, and if one fails, the other will back it up.  I’ve only tried it with a few new words so far but it could be revolutionary in terms of tone recall (a really knit picking but essential part of mandarin I’m afraid). 

If you’re prepared to master Chinese (5 years +) you should be prepared to learn a number system for a week or so, which will not only help your Chinese but also your memory for any number application.


P.s To remember a date, you convert the numbers to letters  (1918)  19= A.S  18 A.H.  Each person has an associated action for a reason.  So Arnold Schwarzenegger (A.S) is doing a goose step (A.H, Adolf Hitler).  Make sense?  It’s difficult at first but it sticks. It means you don’t have to remember two people but rather 1 person doing one thing.

Now, did I remember to turn off the gas?




The Beauty of a Memory Palace.

Two days into my new memory challenge and I have realised that it is more than just learning endless facts.  Using this loci method has allowed me to go into my past and re-live times that are otherwise slowly slipping away and becoming more and more ephemeral with the passage of time.

Pictures of past holidays are all very well but they don’t conjure up the same type of spatial, kinaesthetic, auditory, and olfactory senses that you get from actually walking around an environment and interacting with it.

For learning the european capitals and countries, I used the house we have rented in France for the past few years and trace a small route around the kitchen, living room, and lower bedroom.  With the geological periods I quickly run round my family home, and with my most recent conquest, (all 54 African states in 20 mins) I have re-imagined a place from my childhood which had once been close to my heart.

This place was my grandparents old house in Hastings.  However, with the passage of time, my memory has fragmented and rooms are interspaces with a cloudy grey haze.  With some effort I managed to re-create the environment and quickly nipped around giving it a spring clean and refurnishing.

The wonderment of modern technology allowed me to search for the house today using Google maps and it brought back a flood of memories which made me well up slightly. This cul-de-sac suburban scene is identical to what I remember, and seems to have not changed, although the house seems to be half as small. Then again, I was also half as small so it would appear twice as big.

Now that I have these palaces, I can revisit them at any time, not only preventing them from slipping away, but also re-living some good times in my life, and at the same time learning a list of things that makes someone like Fiona or Laurence want to punch me.

(P.s. Now working on incorporating other techniques into the memory palace to exponentiate what I can learn. Numbers are a tricky but necessary step. I’ll let you know what these techniques are and how I get on.)


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The Memory Palace: How to Improve your Memory

I’ve always been interested in memory, and studied it extensively in my 4th year of university. I devoured anything that talked about improving your memory, and was a massive fan of Derren brown when he first came about.

What particularly struck me was an episode where he had memorised every word in a book. If I could somehow master this, revising for exams would be a breeze. I’m quite proud of my memory and have always done well on exams, but it requires massive amounts of time and effort, and not something that can be done overnight.

There is something magical about looking at a topic* which at first is alien and impossible, but which (hopefully) becomes second nature and requires very little effort to recall.

During exams I can usually recall where on the page I learnt a thing, what song I was listening to, and where I was sitting. For one 3rd year, myself and my flatmate (JS) had done so many past-papers and quizzed one another, that doing the exams required very little effort despite being impossibly hard at first.

Now that I’ve finished University, knowing discrete facts is less important to my daily life. It is indeed less important to most peoples lives, what with smartphones taking a lot of our metal capacity and externalising it. Apps for ToDo lists, films to watch, songs to download, events to remember etc.

A few months back I watched a TED talk (LINK) about the journalist Joshua Foer who went to report on a memory championship. With an average memory, he wondered how these people were different to himself. Upon talking to the contenders, they all said that they weren’t smarter than anyone else, but practiced methods for learning things that meant they could memorise thousands of binary digits in minutes, and 27 decks of cards in (15 minutes) etc.

One of the contenders told him that he should compete at the next world championship, which he scoffed at, but agreed to some training in the art of these memory techniques which have not differed sine Greek times, and used massively by Cicero to memorise speeches.

Skip forward several months and this Journalist who had no particularly skill competed in the world championships, and won! Reading the book of this amazing journey, I have begun trying out the techniques used by Cicero and others for thousands of years,and last night decided to learn some things I had either forgotten or had no idea about. I choose geological periods, (forgotten), UK prime ministers (from George V to present) (novice) and US presidents (novice).

I picked a memory palace to work with and started at the corner of my house, walking round the back and down the steps to the back door. Turning left I climbed the spiral staircase into my sister’s old room and on through to the middle room where I came to the end of my walk.

This is a place I can easily recall without effort and i encourage the reader to imagine your own house, quickly walking through all the rooms. Pretty easy right. Now imagine a house you have only been in once, or not for a very long time, and you will also see that a lot of detail remains. Each spacial map can be your memory palace.

The trick is creating lots and lots of maps. Imagine old flats, the journey to work, the house of a friend, or even your own body. By using these places as your route map you also aid in remembering places that may have slipped your mind, and keep old memories alive.

To build new palaces, just go for a walk and focus on the route, or indeed just recall a level of your favourite computer game. I’m going to try one based on a Tony Hawks level later (the skater). I won’t bore you with the details of how to use your palace (see here), but encourage you to sit down for 10 minutes maximum, and learn a list of things you previously had no idea about (pick 15-20 words to start with). Spend 5-7 minutes on encoding lists of names into visual images and placing them within your home. Provided the imagery is vivid, exciting, and dirty enough, you’ll be able to recall this list without any more effort than it requires to walk the route in your head.

This morning i was able to regurgitate all of the facts i had remembered with hardly any effort, all within a few seconds. As long as I travel through my route later on today, perhaps in 3 days, and then 2 weeks, with lager and larger intervals, these things should stay in my long term memory (LTM) indefinitely.

We’ll see. I shall try these techniques on learning some Chinese today, but it’s famously hard to make pictures of words which have no grounding in English.

Any suggestions on what my next challenge should be? I’ve not tackled numbers yet, but might do the periodic table or something.

Eventually when i’m good i’ll try and memorise a poem or something poncey like Shakespeare. Ideas for challenges welcome.

* Topic comes from the latin topos for topographical because you would imagine each point of your speech (topic) as a particular location in your memory palace.

(Note to self: Invent a compute program that capitalised i’s when they’re by themselves. Highly annoying. i –> I