Mick Jagger was right - You Can't Always Get What You Want. Especially when it comes to important stuff like control of the TV remote.
As a result, I've recently had the misfortune to be subjected to several episodes of the far-fetched TV drama 'Numbers'. If you happen to have missed the show (lucky you) here's the storyline in a nutshell (same storyline each episode).
Evil-doers hatch evil scheme to wreak violence and destruction on innocent people...
...police struggle against time to connect clues
...desperate detectives turn to maths professor for help
...maths prof analyses data and finds hidden pattern
...leads police to evil-doers (at very last minute)
...disaster is averted
...everyone lives happily ever after
Except of course for the evil crims who usually end up butchered, shot or blown up in the process - and rightly so. It's similar to House, except people do die, there aren't any doctors and it isn't very good.
(Ok I confess, it's not my favourite TV show).
But the central premise of the show is certainly valid - that we live in a world of numbers. And that for most of us numbers are abstract and therefore largely meaningless. Which explains why so many of us experience difficulties when it comes to recalling account numbers, PIN numbers, telephone numbers... or even birthdays. And yet being able to remember numbers is a handy skill to have.
The good news is that there are methods - other than old-fashioned, sleep-inducing rote learning - to help decipher digits and make numbers much more memorable.
The following is an introduction to the most famous technique, the 'Major System'.
It'll gently stretch your creative thinking skills, so give it a go.
Next issue we'll look at how you can apply it to numerous day-to-day tasks - and if you've got young kids, how they can use it to learn their times tables, in a fraction of the normal time. Wow.
So let's begin.
First off, have a go at remembering the following list of eleven numbers. Take no more than 60 seconds.
The answers in a moment.
But now I need to distract you. Or help you to distract yourself.
I could ask you some questions to shift your attention elsewhere but that would be too obvious don't you think?
So instead I'm going to ask you to simply read the following 4 phrases one at a time. After each one pause and in your mind's eye picture the scene described.
Here's the first one...
The Pink Panther running on a treadmill to keep fit
And the second...
Kylie Minogue knitting a scarf
And the third...
Rocky sawing his arm off with a knife
And the fourth
Cher dressed in a nurse's uniform
Great. Well done.
Hopefully. So now grab a pen and some paper and write down as many of the numbers as you can recall from earlier.
Do it now...
If you managed 11/11, congratulations - you don't need any help with remembering numbers!
Less than 100%? Not to worry, your score isn't actually that important. What matters more is how you remembered the ones you remembered. Perhaps mainly by repetition and sheer determination?
Or did certain numbers have some meaning to you - maybe reminding you of someone's birthday, a particular year, a house number or some other association?
For example, I used to own a red 1965 Ford Falcon XP Coupe, a lovely old car. When I see the number 65, in my mind I can't help but think of the beautiful red rust bucket.
So for me, that's an image - a meaningful association - I have for the number 65.
If you didn't have any automatic associations that's not a problem, you can easily create them using the Major System. If you do already have some associations for particular numbers that's a bonus.
Talking of associations and images...
What was Kylie doing?
Who was losing a limb?
What was Cher dressed as?
Who was the first character and what were they doing?
You probably found these questions a little easier than recalling the numbers... in fact, you probably found them very easy. And that's the point.
Our brains struggle to remember numbers because they are largely abstract and devoid of meaningful associations.
In contrast, images are relatively simple to recall.
So what we need is a way of translating numbers into images.
Here's how you do it.
We have all been taught as children to associate sounds to each letter of the alphabet. So we now do exactly the same with numbers - we associate a sound to each of the digits 0 to 9. The sounds are then combined to make words, phrases or even people! For example...
The sound for 8 = F
The sound for 3 = M
So by combining these sounds we get -
83 = FM which could give us...
Foam (for words: insert vowels between the sounds)
Freddie Mercury (for people: use the sounds as initials)
FM may make you think of a radio, so you could just picture a radio for number 83. Or whatever springs to mind.
It doesn't really matter what associations you come up with, just that you have at least one meaningful association or image for the number you want to remember. (The Major System is just a prompt in the early stages to help you logically translate numbers into images and vice versa).
Applying this to real life, if I needed to visit Bargain Books on the High Street and remember that the shop was at number 83...
I'd simply imagine opening the door to the book shop and foam pouring out.
Or Freddie Mercury bursting out the door singing 'We are the champions' and thinking to myself 'That's weird, I thought he was dead'.
Or a combination of the two.
At this point you're probably thinking this is a little strange (it is) but it works and is remarkably effective.
You're also possibly wondering why the sound for '8' is 'F' and the sound for '3' is 'M'? Good question.
The sounds for each digit from 0 to 9 have been chosen because they allow you to easily come up with a wide range of words and images for most combinations of digits.
Here is the standard list of sounds for all the digits from 0 to 9
0 = S
1 = T
2 = N
3 = M
4 = R
5 = L
6 = SH
7 = K
8 = F
9 = P
This is a simplified version of the classic Major System.
It is based on phonetics and several of the digits from 0 to 9 have additional similar sounds e.g. 1 = T and also D, as they are effectively the same phonetic sound. (Not essential to know these but they do allow you to come up with even more images for the same combination of digits. To see the full list Click Here).
Another system for translating numbers into images is the Dominic System, invented by the 8 times World Memory Champion Dominic O'Brien. For more details Click Here.
Both systems effectively do the same thing - allocate sounds to digits which are then combined (like letters) to form words or people. Words or people which your brain already recognises and for which it already has images.
Now you understand the basic system let's finish up by translating a few of the numbers from earlier.
2 digit numbers into people...
83 = you already know (FM)
11 = TT could be Tina Turner
57 = LK could be Lenny Kravitz
3 digit numbers into words...
143 = TRM could be a Tram
941 = PRT could be a Parrot
017 = STK could be a Stick.. or stuck or stack or stock etc.
NOTE: It's the sounds that matter not the spelling.
4 digit numbers into people doing things...
7321 = KM + NT Kylie Minogue Knitting
4728 = RK + NF Rocky with a Knife
9981 = PP + FT Pink Panther keeping Fit
So that's the key to remembering numbers - converting them into images. Then linking the images in some way to the information you want to remember (e.g. who was linked to the shop?)
Takes more time to explain than to do! And once you get the hang of it, it's surprisingly easy, fast and fun - and of course, memorable.
So why not spend just a few minutes a day to:
1. Learn the basic sounds for each of the digits 0 to 9. You can test yourself by reading a row of random numbers and saying the corresponding phonetic sounds out loud e.g.
You'll soon know the sounds automatically.
2. During the day, when you see numbers e.g. prices, licence plates etc. have a go at converting them into images.
Next issue we'll look in more detail at how you can use your new skill to remember everyday things such as account numbers, PIN numbers, telephone numbers and even birthdays.
And I leave you with a brainteaser...
How can an overweight Pink Panther on a treadmill trying to keep fit help a child to learn their 9 times table?
The answer is in the question.
All will be revealed next issue.
The Final Word: Invest a few minutes to crack Kylie's code. Learn the language of numbers. Exercise your creativity - start seeing celebrities and make numbers stick!
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