How to memorize a list of words

Methods explained on that page:

  • The one I recommend: Using a pre-planned memory palace designed for training. The only major downside of this method is you will first need to spend some time preparing at least one memory palace using the advice explained on that page. I think this is time well spent for many reasons. But if you don’t want to do that work, that’s ok. I forgive you. Just use either the linking method, a semi-improvised memory palace or a completely improvised memory palace.
  • A partly-improvised memory palace: Similar to the first method, but simpler. It requires much less preparation beforehand.
  • A completely improvised memory palace: You choose a starting point in a place you know relatively well and you improvise your path while you’re memorizing. Decent results remain possible even with zero preliminary preparation.
  • The linking method: I don’t think this is the best possible method, but it’s extremely simple and it’s still very efficient. I also think that using it once in a while is a good way to practice some of the core fundamental skills of the art of memory. I think everyone should at least understand this method and try it once. And I think that the principles behind the linking method can also be used just as well within a memory palace.
  • The person-in-loci palace: This is very cool, it takes additional preliminary work, it’s only useful in some narrow circumstances and most people shouldn’t bother. But if speed is important for you and you want to improve your random words and possibly images scores by a few points, this method could help.

Recommended method: Using a memory palace designed for training

First build at least one small memory palace designed for training by following the advice in this article. Then use it to memorize random words by placing 2 images on each location. If you’re for example using a memory palace with 6 zones and 30 locations and you’re placing 2 words per location, you can remember a list of 60 words in order. That’s quite an impressive feat for a beginner.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say that this room is the very first zone in your memory palace. In that first zone, you have 5 locations that you’ve chosen in advance. The first location is the fan on the ceiling, the second is the bed, the third is the window, the fourth is the bookcase, fifth is just the middle of the floor near the door.

Here are the first 10 words that you will remember in that room: variety, saxophone, chimpanzee, pointless, subtle, summer, triumph, restart, filthy and scenario. I didn’t choose those words. They were randomly generated using a training website called Memory League. Those words aren’t super hard, but they’re not that easy either.

Now here are some possible images one could use to remember those words. I could come up with many other ways to remember all this, but because I don’t want to write a novel here, I’ll limit myself to just one or two examples per word. Also know that if I was doing this just for me, I would use some associations that probably wouldn’t make sense to you. And I would limit myself to simple blurry images with no more details than necessary. Knowing how much details are “necessary” is a skill that you will develop with practice. 

Now why don’t you try to go along with this example and memorize those 10 words? Start by reading a few sentences and then take a few seconds to picture what is described. Just reading the text probably won’t be enough, you also need to make an effort to at least vaguely imagine those scenes happening in each corner of the room. You don’t need to “see” everything clearly in your mind, you just need to be left with some vague impression.

  • Location 1 – Variety and Saxophone : A stage is suspended from the ventilator. On it we can admire a “variety” of performers, the most prominent one is playing the “saxophone”. Maybe it’s the saxophone guy from the Simpsons?
  • Location 2 – Chimpanzee and Pointless : A “Chimpanzee” is laying in bed, ruminating about his life. He looks at the show above and finds it super boring. He thinks about maybe waking up, but what’s the point? Life is “pointless”, he thinks. Maybe he also has a big point on his forehead.
  • Location 3 – Subtle and Summer : A douchebag type of guy is looking outside the window and yelling cheesy pick-up lines at the girls outside. It’s a hot “summer” day and the girls are walking around in bikinis. One of them tells him he isn’t very “subtle” with his lines. Or maybe the sun is saying the same thing? Mental note here to remember that subtle comes before summer. An alternative method would have been to represent those words using other completely unrelated words that sort of sound like those 2, for example by having a space shuttle landing on the summit of a mountain. Shuttle = Subtle. Summit = Summer. Not the same words, but close enough.
  • Location 4 – Triumph and Restart : I think of Donald Trump (he comes up quite often in my stories) celebrating his “triumph” in the 2016 election. That was a great Trump triumph and a new “restart” for the nation, he thinks. Maybe he’s scanning the library looking for books about himself. Or maybe he suddenly stops moving and one of his aides has to “restart” him by turning the giant key that is attached to his back?
  • Location 5 – Filthy and Scenario : Near the entrance of the room, a porn film director stops filming to yell at Trump and tell him that his election is the most “filthy” “scenario” he has ever come across.

There you go. That was zone 1. If you do the same thing in zones 2, 3, 4 and 5 and you review everything correctly, you can remember a list of 50 words in order in not that much time.

*  If you don’t like my Trump-related images, just change them for something or someone you happen to like or dislike or prefer for some reason. The “Triumph” and “Restart” could be a gold-medal Olympic runner – Usain Bolt maybe – winning a race and immediately “restarting” another one. “Filthy” and “Scenario” could be some dust on the floor that would start moving, with the “Scenario” of your life or of some movie being written on it in a magical way. Again, it’s all up to you.

If you place two images in the same location, how will you know which one is first and which one is second?

It could be the way you position your images. The first image could be above the second. Or the first could be on the left while the second is on the right. Or the first image could be huge while the second will be much smaller. It could be just a quick “remember that this particular word comes first” mental note. All those strategies will work. However, most of the time, I think it’s best to use the way the 2 images are interacting. Image 1 will be doing something to image 2. Click here for more explanations and for various examples with some words chosen at random.

[The rest of this page is a rushed draft. Additional explanations will be added later on.]

Alternative simpler method: Using a semi-improvised memory palace

This is a simplified version than what I recommended above.

  • You’re also going to prepare your memory palace beforehand, but in a less precise manner than what I recommended in this article. You will choose your zones before you start memorizing, using a path that seems to make sense in your mind. But you won’t bother choosing the specific locations.
  • You will choose how many words or elements you will memorize in each zone. I recommend limiting yourself to five or four. For the examples below, let’s say that you chose five.
  • In the first zone, you will improvise images for the first five words. In the second zone, you will improvise images for the next five words. Keep going until you’re done. You will know that the first five words will all be placed in this particular room or zone, but the specific locations of your images will be improvised while you’re memorizing.

Here’s what a possible semi-improvised memory palace could look like if it were to start in my own small apartment:

1- I start in my room. 2- I mentally walk up to the nearby kitchen. 3- I continue to the living room (I choose to ignore the toilet because the room is too small and too uninteresting) 4- I go right outside. 5- I teleport myself in front of the nearby grocery store. (I choose the ignore the 2 street blocks in between because I don’t find them to be interesting and memorable enough). 6- I go inside the grocery store next to all the fruits and veggies. 7- I walk up to the meat and fish section. 8- And finally I wait in line to pay for everything.

So I have 8 distinct zones in order, with no specific locations. No need to be more precise. Now let’s make sure that I know the path well enough. I’ll mentally go through each zone quickly all the way from the starting point until the end. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. And just to be super sure, I’ll now do the same thing in reverse (8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1) and one last time in the regular order.

Ok now I’m ready to start. I know that the first 5 words will be placed in the first zone, but the specific locations of the corresponding images will be improvised while I’m memorizing. 2 words on the bed, 1 word next to it and then 2 words on the dresser? 1 word only on 5 different places? 2 words on one piece of furniture and then three words on another? It doesn’t really matter as long the path seems memorable to me.

Suppose that the first 5 words I have to memorize are unicorn, accountant, error, novel and grammar. In my bedroom (zone 1), I could first imagine that a unicorn is asleep in my bed. A stereotypical accountant arrives and proclaims to the unicorn that she made a mistake, it’s not her bed and unicorns aren’t even real! Next on the dresser, someone I know is reading a novel while paying particular attention to the grammar of each sentence. Or maybe I could imagine that the person reading the novel is my grandmother (“grandma”… grammar… get it?).

If I place 5 words in each of my 8 zones, I can easily memorize a list of 40 words. That’s more than good enough!

Alternative simpler method: Using a completely improvised memory palace

The process is again more or less the same as what I already recommended, except that the path you’re taking is completely improvised.

  • Pick a starting spot. Ideally in a place you know relatively well, but it could be anywhere. Could be where you’re standing right now.
  • Improvise images representing the first 2 words (or 1 or 3 or 4 if you prefer).
  • Semi-randomly choose another spot nearby – maybe the piece of furniture 2 meters away, maybe the next room, maybe that tree behind you – and improvise images for the next few words.
  • Keep going until you’re done with your list of words or elements.

This method will be a little slower. And you’re not careful, you could easily end up forgetting some location. However, as long as you pick a path that isn’t completely absurd, it should go well enough. Just make sure to use memorable images, avoid placing them too close to one another and review correctly.

Alternative simpler method: Using the linking method or story method

[Note that the “Linking method” and “story method” are just two different expressions that mean the same thing.]

No memory palace here! Just an improvised story where element 1 is interacting with element 2, while element 2 is interacting with element 3 and so on… It’s the “story” you’re improvising and the nature of the different interactions that make everything memorable.

Here’s a nice video example showing how it can work. Please note that stories you’ve built yourself should be easier to remember than those built by others.

The main advantage of this method is that you don’t need to prepare a memory palace. Whatever you have to memorize, you can just start improvising a story with all the main elements in order. One downside is that this method is maybe 30% less efficient than a memory palace. That’s still way better than trying to memorize with no memory techniques! Another downside is that if you forget some element, it’s significantly harder to keep going and find the rest of the story. With a memory palace, even if you forget what is on location number 3, there’s nothing stopping you from moving on to location number 4 without any additional problem.

I sometimes use the linking method for songs and verbatim text memorization. I focus on a limited number of keywords, using one image for one line or sometimes for up to 5 or 10 lines, depending on how easy or hard to remember I find the text to be. It works as long as I review often enough.

I don’t think the linking method is the best possible method, but it’s extremely simple and it’s still very efficient. I also think that using it once a while is a good way to practice some of the core fundamental skills of the art of memory, like creativity and focus. I think everyone should at least understand it and try it once. And I think that the principles behind the linking method can also be used just as well within a memory palace.

Alternative more complex method: Using a person-in-loci memory palace

  • You will plan a memory palace in advance, with zones and precise locations and everything, more or less like I recommended in this article.
  • In each location, you will add a character. Can be a cartoon character, someone you know, an actor, a squirrel, a politician, a vampire, a dragon or whoever. If you have a system for memorizing numbers, it could also be all the characters and/or objects of that system positioned in order. Your images for 01 could be in the first location. Your images for 02 could be in the second and so on and so forth.
  • Before you start memorizing anything, you will review your person-in-loci memory palace several times to make sure that you know very well all the locations and characters in order.
  • You will memorize your list of words just like you would have in a regular training place – with 2 words per location – except that your images will be associated not just with the place but also with the characters.

Need an example? Ok let’s pretend that your first zone is your kitchen and your living room, and that those are the five specific locations and characters that you have planned:

  1. Your first location is your kitchen table and the character you decided will always be there is your father.
  2. The second location is your stove and the character you decided will always be there is the Hulk (the Hulk has been really into cooking lately).
  3. Jesus Christ himself is awkwardly standing in front of the door leading to the living room.
  4. There’s a beautiful parrot standing near the main window in your living room.
  5. On your living room’s couch, Eric Cartman is taking a nap while waiting to have his two words to memorize.

Now let’s ask Memory League to select 10 not too easy words:

[By the way I deliberately looked for a series of 10 words that would be slightly harder than usual]

Now here’s how those 10 words could be associated with our 5 characters:

  • Your father is sitting at the kitchen table while looking at a piece of rock with the 10 commandments carved on it. He reads the first and thinks that this is a very important “principle”, but he also “predict” that the next generations will gradually forget about it. To make the prediction part more memorable, maybe he’s also dressed up a ridiculous tarot card reader, looking at the ceiling, waiving his fingers and manipulating the cards.
  • The Hulk is looking at a list of Marvel’s heroes classified by “popularity”. Maybe he’s sad that he isn’t number 1. Or maybe he’s busy signing autographs for his fans? For “unify”, I would imagine some magical ray of light would give him a “unified” version of all the superpowers of all the other superheroes.
  • Jesus is deciding (“selection”) who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. He decides that your father is going to heaven while that vain Incredible Hulk is going to hell. This decision “sadden” poor Hulk.
  • The parrot is building a wooden “ship”, using his cute bird beak and his bird legs. He starts slowly for half a second and then finishes everything extremely quickly (“hasten”).
  • Cartman on your couch is studying (“study”) a book about the art of memory without moving at all (“still”). He isn’t even breathing and his face seems to be frozen in time. Cartman is very well known for his power of concentration and his disciplined study habits.

Designing a person-in-loci palace and getting used to it takes longer. In my experience, it makes the recall process maybe 10 or 20% easier. It also seems to help a little with the visualisation of some difficult words. If speed is important for you and you want to improve your random words and possibly images scores by a few points, this method could help. Some of the most highly skilled memory athletes that I know of use this method for words and for images. Katie Kermode also uses it for numbers and cards.

*For various reasons, rightly or wrongly, I’m tempted to advise beginners to at least wait a while before starting to use that method. Somehow, it feels like a little bit like cheating! If you start using it from the very beginning, it seems to me like you might skip over some important part of the learning process.