Dale, I hate to shock you, but I actually did do it ott of mh (off the top of my head). The only one on the list that might be a little surprising to you, though, is ‘the atomic number of mercury.’
When I was 12 years old my father took a memory course from a man by the name of Bruno Furst. Bruno Furst had written a book called ‘Stop Forgetting’ and had opened a chain of memory schools – much as Evelyn Wood had done with ‘speed reading.’ My father thought it was so good that he sent me off to take the course (as well as Evelyn Wood’s course a few years later).
Furst taught a system of memory, which over the years I have expanded upon till it is far beyond what Furst had done. To make a long story short, one of the basic ideas involved is to relate numbers to letters, letters to words, and words to sentences and create vivid mental pictures and associations. Many of the images are so strong that once memorized they are nearly impossible to forget (e.g. I have telephone numbers rattling around in my head dating back 50 years, which just cannot be erased). I was so enthralled by this system that one of the first tasks I set for myself in junior high was to memorize the atomic numbers of all the elements in the periodic table, which I proceeded to do.
The number 80 is represented by 8 = f (two loops in script) and the ‘s’ sound by ‘0’ (the actual letter makes no difference, it is the sound that counts). Thus 80, using ‘f’ and ‘c’ may be made into the word ‘face.’ I have a permanent list of words in my head along with sharp visualizations associated with each word for numbers from 1 to 200 using this numbers to letters and letters to words idea. The formation of this original mental list is the hard part, requiring much trial and error to discover what works and what doesn’t. But once done, the major work is over and that list will stay with you with very little effort if you use it regularly (in my case 51 years). I also have a secondary list of words (which I found necessary to create when I set myself the task of memorizing the number ‘pi’ to 400 decimal places) so that when I memorize sentences, I don’t have to remember the order of pairs of words. If the word is on my primary list it comes from the first list and if on my secondary list it belongs second, regardless of the order in which they appear in my sentence.
Anyway, 80 = face and I visualize this as a big, smiling, moon-type face on a clock. For the memorization of the periodic table, in which mercury is number 80, I visually the face of this clock being made out of mercury – an image which is just impossible for me to forget. Similarly, for example, 47 translates into and ‘r’ and a ‘k’ from which I formed the word ‘rake’ and for the periodic table I visualize raking the lawn with a silver rake – again, almost impossible to forget. And so it goes. Some images are not as easy as others, but with a little effort they all stick (e.g. 37 is ‘rubidium’ because 37 translates into an ‘m’ and a ‘k’ which forms the word ‘mike’ on my standard list of 200. My visualization for ‘mike’ is a microphone and my periodic table association is a glowing ruby inside that mike – and thus ‘rubidium’).
This may sound strange and hard, but I assure you that it really isn’t that difficult. I have taught the basic principals to many people over the years and they were just ordinary folks. Admittedly, for myself, I have carried things to extremes, but one need not do that to have a pretty good working system – even with a basic list of only 10 or 20 words to hang ideas on one can do wonders (and most people have no need to memorize the periodic table). When I originally took the course back in 1953 everyone in a class of about 30 was able to have the fundamentals down and remember a list of 10 random items by the end of the very first session. This ‘artificial memory’ – my natural memory actually stinks – has served me well throughout my life and I have continued to use it from junior high, though high school, though college, through graduate school, and on the job, and in every facet of my life that requires memory. What it basically does is take memorization from a random process to an nearly exact science – if you are willing to do the work. Names, dates, telephone numbers, grocery lists, points one wants to remember for a history exam, . . . all become accessible by the use of this internal ‘cheat sheet.’
I started to write a book on memory several years ago and got through about 50 handwritten pages (before my days on word processors) and never got around to finishing it. Over the years I have refined my methods and have also studied the works of several other memory specialists (e.g. Kevin Trudeau’s ‘Mega Memory,’ Jerry Lucas’ ‘Memory Book,’ Senator Bill Bradley’s ‘Names and Faces Made Easy, Harry Lorraine’s ‘The Memory Game’) and have incorporated anything valuable that I thought they had to offer into a system that far exceed anything I have ever seen).
For someone looking in from the outside, such feats of memory legerdemain may look fantastic, but it really isn’t. What I do find truly amazing is people with ‘real’ photographic memories – no tricks. One of the most amazing examples of a person with this ability that I have come across was U.S. science and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920–92). He had a ‘true’ photographic memory, so that as he claimed in his fascinating autobiography ‘I. Asimov – A Memoir’ – as impossible as it may sound – he literally remembered everything he had ever read, an ability which stayed with him most of his life until it started to fade in his later years. My 21-year-old son has a photographic memory, but only for numbers. I learned of this several years ago while driving to a Bob Dylan / Paul Simon concert in Denver. At the time I was brushing up on my memorization of ‘pi’ to 400 places (as a mental exercise which I undertook because one starts to lose it if you don’t use it as one gets older). I had a printout and was asking my son to check me out as we drove. He asked me if he could try it and in less than one hour had the list memorized (with my convoluted method it had originally taken me several weeks). He claims he sees patterns in the numbers stretching out in wave-like formations (wow!).
So, this is probably more than you wanted to know about how I got 80 as the atomic number of mercury, but this concept of ‘artificial memory’ is dear to my heart and I find the subject fascinating.
Ken – October 28, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)