I’m finally getting close to completing my initial survey of memory techniques related to numbers. Yay! To that end, I now turn my attention to a couple of techniques that just don’t work for me. However, they may work for you, and people that participate in memory competitions swear by them, so I would be remiss if I didn’t at least point provide an overview.

The Major System

The Major System and the Dominic System both rely on relating phonetics with numbers. That is, they provide rules to relate numbers to sounds as an aid to memory. The basic process for remembering any number using these techniques is this:

  1. Break the number into two or three digit chunks.
  2. Apply rules to translate each chunk into consonants.
  3. Use the consonant sounds to make a word.
  4. Commit the word to memory. If required, use another memory technique to help remember long sequences.

To recall a number:

  1. Recall the word.
  2. Decode the word back to its original number.

That was probably less than helpful as a description. It will become clearer shortly.

The Major System uses a table to provide rules for translating each digit to consonant sound. Vowels are always ignored.

Digit Consonants
0 S, Z, or soft C
1 D or T
2 N
3 M
4 R
5 L
6 J, SH, soft CH, DG, ZH, or soft G
7 K, hard C, hard G, hard CH, Q or Qu
8 F or V
9 B or P

 

There is an excellent example in Wikipedia, which I’ll expand somewhat. Imagine you want to memorize the first digits of Pi, 3.1415927. Using the table above, 3=M; 1= T or D; 4=R; and so on.

3 1 4 1 5 9 2 7
M T or D R T or D L B or P N K, hard C, etc.

 

When memorizing these numbers, our task it to translate these sounds to words by adding vowels in between the consonant sounds. The Wikipedia examples suggests MeTeoR TaiL PiNK as a good solution, but I suspect that answer was far from obvious to most readers.

Most proponents of the Major System suggest sticking to nouns when encoding the digits. This makes sense, since our brains like remembering nouns, and it’s easier to apply other memory techniques such as the Memory Journey system if we stick to nouns.

When I try to encode the digits of Pi, I prefer to use two digit chunks, so I might end up with MaT RaT LaB kNacK.

The reason the Major System doesn’t work for me is that the process of going from number to consonant to word is too difficult and therefore slow, and the resulting nouns aren’t particularly interesting or memorable. Decoding from something like MeTeoR TaiL PiNK or MaT RaT LaB kNacK is just as tedious for me. Both the encoding and decoding process are vulnerable to ambiguity since many digits can be encoded as multiple consonant sounds.

Compare that to the Person Association technique. That technique requires the one-time pre-association of a person to each two digit combination (or three digit combination for the overly ambitious). Thus, instead of MaT RaT LaB kNacK, I might have a list of four famous people which I would then imagine in some silly or taboo scenes in order to lock in the memory.

There is no doubt the Major system is powerful and effective. However, for my purposes and the way my brain works, I don’t find it as useful as the Person Association technique. This is exactly why it’s important to develop a personal memory toolbox by learning those methods that work for you.

The Dominic System

The Dominic System is a bit more interesting to me, but even so I don’t use it. I tried it; I didn’t like it. The Dominic System uses an encoding scheme similar to the Major System. Instead of converting digits to numbers, the goal is to convert the digits to people and actions. The suggested encoding is:

Number Value
0 O
1 A
2 B
3 C
4 D
5 E
6 S
7 G
8 H
9 N

 

Notice that the Dominic System doesn’t shy away from vowels during the encoding, and there is no ambiguity; the mapping of digits to letters is one to one. Chunking of the series of digits to be memorized is always in pairs.

There is considerable preparation work required. Each pair of digits needs to be permanently associated with a person whose initials match the value to be remembered. For example, in our Pi exercise, the first two digits 3 and 1 are encoded as C and A. Thus, we need to know a famous or significant person whose initials are C and A. This can be quite a challenge at times. It took me a few minutes before I came up with the name of Chester Arthur. It’s debatable how many people think the 21st president of the United States still counts as famous or significant. I don’t mean to demean the memory of the 21st president, but I honestly don’t remember what he looks like, which makes making a mental image to aid memory somewhat challenging.

So, to continue our Pi exercise, 3.1415927 turns into CA DA EN BG. We need to translate these initials into people, preferably using a pre-memorized list of person associations. Perhaps we get something like:

CA Chester Arthur

DA Dan Aykroyd

EN Eugene Nowak

BG Bill Gates

 

You may be wondering who Eugene Nowak is. I have no idea. It took a couple of minutes of searching the web for me to find someone whose initials are EN, and Dr. Eugene Nowak was at the top of my search results. He’s a surgeon. I think.

Again, this reveals what I consider one of the weaknesses of the Dominic System. In order to use it, you must have pre-memorized a list of people for each possible two digit combination. Therefore it takes as much work as the Person Association technique, but without the freedom to choose people who are personally significant to you.

But wait – it gets better. For each person, you must also remember an associated action. This makes the Dominic System even harder, but this extra step is also where the power comes from. Using the Dominic System, you can encode four digits in a single image instead of the Person Association’s two digits per image.

Our Pi example should be chunked into two groups of two pairs:

31 41 and 59 27

This becomes:

Chester Arthur/Dan Aykroyd and Eugene Nowak/Bill Gates

But we aren’t done yet. Now we keep the first person in our head, but use a pre-memorized action associated with the second person.

To explain: Our pre-memorized list might look like:

27 = Bill Gates writing code on a computer

31 = Chester Arthur vetoing a bill

41 = Dan Aykroyd dancing in the Blues Brothers

59 = Eugene Nowak performing surgery

 

The mental image we build combines the person of the first pair of digits doing the action of the second pair of digits. Thus, we remember:

31 41 = Chester Arthur telling a joke

59 27 = Eugene Nowak writing code on a computer

 

As you can see, each scene encodes four digits, which is very powerful and potentially very fast for remembering large sequences of digits.

The PAO System

The PAO system is just like the Dominic System, but it extends the fun by allowing six digits to be encoded per image.

PAO is Person-Action-Object. The Dominic System could also be called the Person-Action system. It requires pre-memorizing a person and action for each possible two digit combination. PAO does this one better by requiring the pre-memorization of a person, action, and associated object for each possible two digit combination.

For our Pi example, we would have to pre-memorize something like:

Digits Person Action Object
27 Bill Gates Writing code On a computer
31 Chester Arthur vetoing A bill
41 Dan Aykroyd Telling jokes To an audience
59 Eugene Nowak Performing surgery On a patient

 

We chunk the number to be memorized six digits at a time as three pairs:

31 41 59

And we build a scene to remember by using the person of the first pair, the action of the second pair, and the object of the third pair:

Chester Arthur telling jokes to a patient.

Typically most people would then place that constructed scene at the first loci of a Memory Journey.

Summary

It should be obvious that these are advanced techniques for those very serious about being able to memorize long sequences of digits with ease. They all require significant investment in pre-memorization work.

Personally, I don’t have a lot of interest in party tricks or memory competitions. However, if I did want to memorize the first 10000 digits of Pi, the Dominic or PAO system is the way I would choose.

The guy who came up with the Dominic system is Dominic O’Brien. If you have an interest in getting really good at remembering a series of digits, you might want to show some love to the guy that came up with the system by buying one of his books.