I’ve always been miserable with numbers. I suffer from non verbal learning disability, which means that on my IQ tests I score near genius levels on the verbal portion and borderline special needs on the non-verbal–a 60 point gap last time I checked.
If anyone should have trouble remembering numbers, it’s me. But I couldn’t go through life never having any numbers committed to memory, so I had to come up with some workarounds.
At some point I realized that I had a pretty good head for historical dates as long as I thoroughly understood the context of the significance of the date.
Your memory for dates probably works more or less the same way. I’ll illustrate: Let’s say I had a bank account number, 061242580.
Most people with untrained memories would have a tough time remembering that for more than about a minute. Not for me.
Why? My brother was born on June 12 (0612) and my wife was born on April 25, 1980 (42580). I don’t see a string of digits in this example, I see two very important people in my life. That mnemonic wouldn’t work for you, but it works for me.
In trying to remember numbers or keep count, I realized that I didn’t know enough meaningful dates to help with that, so I took a cue from synsthetes who see numbers, even very large numbers, as individual people or characters.
Meet the numbers
I’ve started by creating personalities for the numbers one through ten. Feel free to steal mine if you find them to be memorable, but I encourage you to exercise your creativity and try creating your own. Memory is personal, so make it specific to you.
I won’t go through my whole list, but these might help you if you want to try this on your own:
One is a thin man in his early thirties, about five foot, six inches tall, black hair, aquiline nose. He tends to wear suits a lot and has a formal sensibility. He’s a widower with a daughter he’s left to raise on his own and is secretly romanicing his attractive neighbor, 2.
Four always looked to me like a little guy holding his arm up to a square. This pose reminds me of the military. Also military guys are known for saying “ten-four” into radios, at least in the movies. So my number four is a military man, a career soldier with ginger hair, a face with sun-damaged skin, a black beret on his head and well-worn combat boots on his feet. Four always means business.
Since I was a teenager I’ve been in the habit of drawing my sevens with a little line through the middle thus:
So 7 is a guy with a mustache. In fact, seven is my favorite guy with a mustache, Tom Selleck.
Zero is 1’s pre-pubescent daughter. I always picture her with braces and wearing her first bright white party dress.
For the number 10, Zero is dancing with her father, like at a daddy/daughter dance at the country club.
To help me remember these characters permanently I use them to help me count reps in my workout. Instead of trying to keep count the way I used to, picturing the traditional arabic numerals (which I was always terrible at), I see the these characters. I give them a nod in my imagination as I pass them by.
Eleven through one hundred
It was easy enough to give 1 a twin brother to feud with for 11 and to create a plot where he’s having an affair with 2 to make 12, but I quickly realized I couldn’t go on like that forever.
One of my on-going projects is to create personalities for the rest of the numbers through 100. I’m leaning more on celebrities and historical figures now and less on original characters.
I’m through the mid-twenties and I have a few others worked out in isolation. Eighty-Five for instance is Marty McFly from the time travel movie Back to the Future, since 1985 is that character’s home year. Sixty-four will always be Paul McCartney since he wrote and sang the Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Pitcher Tim Lincecum is 55 for the number on his Giants jersey, etc.
By the way, any time I can incorporate a song into my mnemonics, that’s always a bonus. In fact, the more of your senses you can engage when creating mnemonics, the more strings of memory will be attached to that information, and the easier it’ll be to retrieve.
Actions speak louder than numbers
For longer numbers, like my checkbook balance or my credit cards, I’ve also created actions for each number, creating bizarre little stories. Seven, for instance, reminds me of severed limbs. If I want to remember 175, I picture 1 severing 5’s bell-bottomed legs from his body.
Mind palaces are the best way to organize all these numbers in whatever configuration I need them to be in.
All these techniques are about working with your memory’s inherent strengths. It’s a little like working with a troubled kid and helping them find purpose by focusing on what they’re good at or what they enjoy.
My mind doesn’t love numbers, so why force it? It does like stories, so I translate the numbers into stories and characters. It’s also a little like a foreign language–a language you invent yourself as you go along, and which is just between you and your own mind.