A memory technique has to be efficient in order to be useful. Every memory athlete relying on traditional methods has to find a balance between a sophisticated system and practicality. Especially when it comes to number systems there are considerable choices to make.
Starting with a 2-digit system like the 2nd-Level Major System is a relatively small effort of 100 images (10²). A system like this can be learned in a very short time, is therefore quickly available and can easily be trained. The downside of it is the small cluster of only two digits. For a forty digit number you will have to memorize 20 images on 20 locations with your Elephant Path through the Method of Loci (supposing you use one image on each location).
Improving the system to a 3-digit system is a very big step and requests already 1.000 images (10³). There are several techniques to do this, like using a 3rd-Level Major System or the Ben System. Both are great ways to create a list of 1.000 images. The effort is ten times as much and will require a lot of practice before you can use it quickly. But for a forty digit number you will only have to memorize 13.3 images on 13.3 locations which will ultimately boost your speed and precision (.3 because you cannot divide 40 by 6 with whole numbers; more about this under “PAO in Action”). Any 3-digit system will therefore be more sophisticated than a 2-digit system.
The PAO-System jumps in that huge gap between these two techniques and provides a beautiful alternative with only 300 images needed. Technically it is a 3 x 2-digit system. It is also a great upgrade for your existing 2-digit system and will be memorized in no time. But it also can work as your first system.
How PAO works
The idea behind the PAO-System is very simple: If we want to avoid encoding more digits into one image, we have to find another way to condense information. We can do that by creating a cluster of 2-digit images. That means we use more than one list of 100 images and combine them into one big cluster. In case of the PAO-System we create three lists of 100 items each: 100 persons (P), 100 actions (A) and 100 objects (O).
947283 : Person #94 is doing Action #72 with Object #83.
The beauty of this system besides the clustered information of six digits is the natural order of each list: It’s always the Person first, followed by the Action and the Object last. Memorize 6.6 little scenes like this on 6.6 of your locations and you have encoded a forty digit number. That sounds much better than a 3-digit system where you have to memorize twice as much and learn 700 images more in the first place, doesn’t it?
But all magic comes with a price: Even if you cluster three images together into one, they still have to be remembered all by themselves in the end. You will see that it takes a whole new focus compared to a simple 2-digit or even a 3-digit system. It is essential to clearly visualize each person, action and object. Otherwise you might forget who was jumping on your sofa with a big candle. The same thing goes for the action and the object of course. It will take some practice to figure this out.
And there is another downside to this system: You are cutting yourself of from a lot of creativity. The combination of these three elements draws a clear image that you only have to put on one of your locations. There is little room for your ideas which are a huge part of the fun in my opinion. On the other hand this will be balanced out through a more creative need for location interaction. You will find more about this under the point “PAO in action”.
Due to this and other phenomenon many consider variations of the system, for example a PO-System with only two lists of 100 persons and 100 objects. That will give you plenty of room for creativity again but will reduce the cluster to 4 digits instead of 6. Others have problems with the 100 persons. They always confuse them with each other and only use an AO-System with 100 actions and 100 objects.
Creating the PAO System
There are many ways to create your three lists. Personally I prefer the following method: If you are building your first number system, you should consider the Major System. It will help you to encode your first list of 100 images and learn them quickly. Then, or if you already have a 2-digit system, you can upgrade it astonishingly easy and quick: Look at all your 100 images. If they are objects try to find associations to a person and action for each one. If they are persons look for a fitting object and action. That way you will create natural associations you already have in your head. After specifying them you will remember your new lists very easily by activating your images in your first list.
- 40 = Rose (O) → Sleeping Beauty (P) and sleeping (A)
- 13 = Team (P) → running (A) and a football (O)
- 50 = Lasso (O) → Cowboy (P) and swinging (A)
Update: Another great list of a major system based PAO in english.
PAO in action
To memorize a 40-digit number you will read it in steps of two digits each, translating the first two into the person, the second two into the action and the third two digits into the object. Put them together and combine this image with your location from your Elephant Path. Then go on to the next six digits and repeat this sequence until you created five image clusters. Only 6.6 clusters and you can memorize 8304827739410499306928301829439382904639 – amazing isn’t it?
If you prefer to let your images interact with your locations, instead of simply placing them in front of them, you need to get creative. For example if your location is a u-shaped door knocker and your PAO provides you with something like an elephant (P) sings (A) on a bicycle (O). In order to let the huge elephant interact with the door knocker while doing his sing-riding he could become small enough in your imagination. Maybe so tiny, that he and his bike fit easily within the u-curve of the door knocker. This will be a cute little image worth remembering for your brain.
If you are competing at a memory competition you will have to deal with the fact, that each row will be 40 digits long. After 6 PAO-images (36 digits) you will reach the end of the row with only four digits left. When you encode the next four images in this row AND the next two digits in the following row to create a full PAO-image, you could lose two complete rows with 80 digits together. If you forget this PAO-image you will have 4 mistakes in the first row and 2 mistakes in the second, setting both of them to zero (1 mistake half of the row, 2 mistakes cancels the row). To avoid this you should consider memorizing only the last four digits of the row with a PO-image for example and starting the next row with a new PAO-image.
PAO for cards
You can use the PAO-Sytem for cards as well. In case of cards it makes even more sense because a 2-card system requires 2.652 images (52x51 cards). It is much easier to create and works exactly the same way as with numbers. You can simply take your existing 1st-Level card system and upgrade it with the same technique I explained above. If you don’t have a card system yet, you should create a simple one and then upgrade it. It really is worth the effort and athletes like Andy Bell are able to memorize a deck of 52 cards with it in 31.16 seconds.
The 3-digit Millennium PAO System
The first Person I heard talking about this was Edward Cooke. I think it was also mentioned in Joshua Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstein” where he talks about Ed. Basically it is the same technique but with a 3-digit cluster and therefore encodes 9 digits within one PAO-image instead of 6.
Although I don’t see a practical way of finding 1.000 distinguishable actions, I find the idea of a mix-system intriguing. You can use two rows with 1.000 persons and 1.000 objects encoding six digits. Then you can add a 2-digit list of 100 actions encoding eight digits altogether. That will even erase the problem with a 40-digit row on a memory championship because then you will encode the entire row within five images. The first part of this project is already published as The 1.000 People System.
Origins of the PAO-Systems
I don’t really know who came up with the PAO-System. Maybe it was former World Memory Champion Andy Bell because I know he used it already in the early 2000s. But many picked it up and I know you folks are interested in it. There is little literature on this subject so I want to help to spread this awesome technique. I hope I was able to answer all your questions about it. Feel free to use the comments to discuss any issues you have.
Quote: Tom Kaypacha Lescher