Monday, December 6, 2010

Memory Training and the MAT Part 2--GW Bush at Bat.

Good evening, Everyone.

So memorizing a large amount of information in a small amount of time is what I found myself doing today, and I will likely continue doing this until the 12th or 13th of this month, depending on my mood.  I'm of course doing this to prepare for my Miller Analogies Test, and figured I could use the exercise to cover some of the basics of how to memorize voluminous information.

Today was all about the US Presidents and world leaders,  Shakespearean characters, philosophy/philosophers, film/filmmakers, and vehicles. I chose these five topics after taking an MAT practice test that can be found here on page 77, and having to guess on problems involving these topics (whether I got them right or wrong is another topic for tomorrow).

So, I'm embarrassed to say I am like many Americans and couldn't name half of the U.S. presidents, much less even a minor fraction of famous world leaders. Until today.  Here's how I remedied that, and if you ever need to memorize a list (in order or as a free set) a way you could do it too.

Mnemonists have developed a variety of mnemonic techniques, sort of like how a wizard may have a variety of potions at his or her disposal. Different ones for different occasions in the case of both the memorizer and the thaumaturge.  A great mnemonic technique for remembering a list when order is important is the peg system.   A brief description of the peg system would be assigning items to be remembered to images that represent numbers.  It does take a bit of prearrangement to form an image for a number that is significant to you.  One person may think an image of a ladybug should represent the number 6 (six legs), while another thinks a gambling die would be better (six sides).  Whatever works for you. 

In my case, the number images I use are mainly the ones Andi Bell mentions in his highly recommended book about mnemonics. I changed some of them to fit me, and did so many years ago, so they're second-nature for me. For numbers 44-40 they are as follows:

44--India Arie (long story...)
43--Baseball bat ( "6-4-3" baseball card)
42--Streetlight (42nd Street)
41--Mozart (Symphony #41)
40--Champagne (something you may drink on your 40th birthday)

I started with #44, because the USA is currently on its 44th POTUS and it's easier for me to start from Obama to Washington rather than the other way around.

So as I previously mentioned, the peg system works by associating the desired thing to remember to the numerical symbols that you know by heart.  The thing is, if you want to remember them for a relatively long time, you have to make the association outrageous, surprising, exotic...even illogical.   It's the best way to ensure the information will "stick" in the minds of us who are not blessed with a natural eidetic memory.

If I want to remember Obama is the 44th President, I don't envision him shaking hands with India Arie (she's #44 for me, remember).  That's too easy to eventually forget.  No, I picture him getting busted in a hotel room (Room #44, of course) in India with India Arie by the TV show Cheaters.  That's an image I'm not going to forget! 

The same goes for our 43rd President, George W. Bush.  It's tempting to just unimaginatively see him swing a bat at the World Series. But it's even more memorable to see him swinging a bat at the shoes this guy "pitches" to him:

I did this type of memorizing for all 44 Presidents (43, if you don't count Grover Cleveland twice).  Along the way, I went here and made the Presidents more "human" by reading a variety of facts about them.  Because I had their names anchored in my head thanks to the peg system, it was easier to devote time to remembering the trivia in a casual and leisurely way.  I figure what sticks will stick, and I'll likely remember more of the tangential information than I think I would.  I'll discuss why tomorrow when I talk about test-taking and intuition. 

Good night, guys. 

--Nathan (Nth)


  1. Hello! I stumbled onto your blog, and find these most recent posts of yours quite fascinating and very informative! While I commend you on your interest in pursuing your higher education by way of preparing for it via the MAT, I wonder if you might be so kind as to point me to some specific study materials and practice tests for the same as I also intend to take the same test in the near future.
    Many thanks,
    Simmi Isaac

  2. How did you remember the names of the presidents? That sounds most difficult to me, perhaps because I'm Norwegian and honestly haven't heard of half of your presidents from the >19th century, much less could name them :P

  3. Hey, Øyvind;

    My case is probably different than yours. I've more or less heard all of their names at one point in time over the years. I just needed context. In your case, I would use flash cards to rapidly familiarize myself with these people.

    There are going to be gaps in the knowledge set, of course. A "swiss cheese" education, I guess. But time will take care of that.

    Example-- I remember my little cousin (age 6 or so) telling me about George Washington.

    Amari: "Helloooo, you don't know who George Washington was? He was the Pwesident."

    Nth, playing along: "Really?"

    Amari: "Yeah.... I think he died."