After learning the basic Method of Loci and how to make a perfect association, it is time for the golden fleece of memory techniques: the Major System. It is a powerful tool which is used by the majority of mental athletes. Since it is based on a phonetic system, you will easily memorize all the images and go on to use it in action. But you must be careful with it: It will blow your mind!
Editor’s note: Our sister page Thinkkniht has published an entire series of updated articles about this topic:
Overview of Number Systems
Systems encoding 1 digit within one image (10 images):
- Major System (1st-Level)
Systems encoding 2 digits within one image (10²=100 images):
- Major System (2nd-Level)
- Dominic System (100 people-system developed by Dominic O’Brien)
2nd-Level Hybrid Systems
Hybrid-Systems encoding 2 digits within one image but forming a cluster with two or more images:
- Person Action System (PA – 200 images)
- Person Object System (PO – 200 images)
- Action Object System (AO – 200 images)
- Person Action Object System (PAO – 300 images)
All these systems might be created with the Major Code or other approaches. They are technically upgradable with any amount of new sets of 100 images each. But growing complexity comes with the price of efficency.
Systems encoding 3 digits within one image (10³=1.000 images):
- Major System (3rd-Level)
- Ben System (developed by Ben Pridmore)
Systems encoding 4 digits within one image (104=10.000 images):
- Major System (4th-Level)
- Simon System (developed by Simon Reinhard)
The challenge of numbers
The memory of a human being varies from person to person. Although we all share more or less the same brain-physiology, there are huge differences in the way we all think and remember. Some people are excellent when it comes to memorize digits. They still remember the phone numbers from their friends in primary school. Others however forget the four digits of their cash cards in an instant. I have no actual statistics about that, but I assume that most people have problems with numbers. So why do we forget about digits so easily?
The reason why numbers are so troublesome for many people is that they are abstract. They characterize an amount of something, but are nothing we can see, hold or feel. We can’t even describe what they mean. Sure, you can try it for a very low digit. But when it comes to more than ten you will have huge problems. The conclusion for memory athletes is, to make numbers more concrete.
The different peg systems
To manifest a number you have to alter it into something else. It doesn’t really matter into what, as long as you can imagine it. Since we have a decimal system, we need to translate at least ten images for each number. The lists you create out of those objects are broadly called “peg lists“. I will refer to these objects as “images” or “mnemonics”. Once you memorized such a list, you can use it over and over again and memorize any amount of digits (depending on the amount of your locations from your Method of Loci).
We will now look at a few different number systems used by memory athletes. Growing complexity is indicated by the term “Level”. A higher level contains more information within an image and is therefore more efficient for the memorizing task. At the same time the effort grows to learn the system. A 1st-Level system might be learned within five minutes. For a 3rd-Level system you should better anticipate a few weeks. It depends on your purpose which you should use. For studies you might be fine with the smaller systems. If you want to become a memory champion you should go for higher complexity.
This overview is merely an example of the most popular systems. The possibilities are far greater. Every novice is advised to keep in mind that there always might be a better solution for translating numbers into something more memorable.
1st-Level: Number-Shape and Number-Rhyme System
One approach is through the shape of each number. For example: The “two” looks just like a swan. Another way is using rhymes for each number. In this case the “two” could be “shoe”. Except you are dealing with only a few small numbers, don’t bother learning such a simple system. But why is that?
At first, you don’t use the power of clusters. That means, putting several information into one image. To remember a phone number with eight digits, you would need eight images with such a simple system. Although it still helps to remember it, the effort is too big for such a simple task.
Second of all, ten images are not enough to have an adequate variety for different stories. Imagine you have to make a story for a number with four “twos”. You would have to put four swans in your mental image.
If you want to memorize digits more effectively, you will need a more evolved system. So let’s skip these and go on to the 2-digit-Systems.
2nd -Level: The Major System
The smallest cluster for decimal digits is two digits together. 10x10 makes 100 images for each combination of two numbers. It might sound much to learn, but the mnemonic basis of these systems help you to do so in a very short time. This guide sets its focus on the Major System, one of many ways to cluster two digits together. In the end it doesn’t matter what kind of system you use if you have the same amount of information stored as images.
The Major System is a phonetic technique to translate numbers into words. It starts with converting digits into consonant sounds. After that you add vowels before, between and after those letters. The phonetic rules are mnemonics and therefore easy to remember. That helps you to reconstruct the images you have in your head, even if you didn’t learn the full set of 100 images yet. After some practice you will have strong associations with each number from 00 to 99. It seems like a big effort to make things easier for your memory. But it isn’t that difficult and in the end you will never have to think about it again. You will just know your images. If you can overcome your doubt of the efficiency of this effort, you are one huge step ahead of everyone who came this far but turned their back on these techniques.
Another great thing about the Major System is the fact, that it is expandable. By adding a third number to your cluster you will reach the 3rd level. That would mean to memorize 1.000 objects, before you can use it (or 900 if you already learned a list of 100). But that is nothing you should think about for starters. Actually you are able to come very far with a 2nd-Level system. But the amount of memory athletes using a 3rd-Level system is growing every day. I will not go into detail about the 3rd-Level system because it works excactly the same way as a 2nd-Level Major System but with three digits to encode instead of two.
And there is a nice alternative: You can improve any 2nd-Level System to a double or even bigger cluster by creating more of these 100-images-lists. A popular approach is the PAO-System (Person-Action-Object), a very potent upgrade to a cluster of six digits with three 2nd-Level lists (300 images). It requires the knowledge of this article. So let’s go on.
The rules: 86 is a fish
The following rules are the basics of the system. You have to memorize them in order to create and reconstruct your images. I taught them to dozens of children. They were able to learn them in about ten minutes. Without an oral explanation, it might take a little bit longer, but you get my point: It is very simple!
The Major Code
Let’s have a look at the rules according to Wikipedia:
- Each digit maps to a set of similar sounds with similar mouth and tongue positions. The mapping is phonetic, so it is the consonant sounds that matter, not the spelling. Therefore a word like “action” would encode the number 762, not 712; and “ghost” would be 701, while, because the “gh” in “enough” is pronounced like an “f”, the word “enough” encodes the number 28.
- Similarly, double letters are disregarded. The word “missile” is mapped to 305, not 3005. To encode 3005 one would use something like “mossy sail”.
- Often the mapping is compact. “Hindquarters”, for example, translates unambiguously to 2174140, which amounts to 7 digits encoded by 12 letters, and can be easily visualized.
Now you see why the Fish is the number 86.
Create your own list
If you are sticking to the rules above, there are few things you can make wrong. You can even use abstract words like “time” if you have a strong visual association for it like a clock. Stay strictly with the rules in the beginning. It will help you to memorize the words. Later you can jump around and use any words to replace your weaker images. I changed several pegs in my system over time without using the Major System anymore. But to learn the whole pack at once, the rules are a must have.
Another thing to consider is, to exclude words with more than two consonants from your 2nd-level list. That makes it easier afterwards to expand your system to the 3rd-level. And you even don’t have to come up with the correct words yourself. There are free programs for that, which help you to find proper images:
- Major System Generator
- Memo Camp – Training Website for memory techniques
- 2Know Mnemonic Software
Here is a full set of 100 images I found here and a full set in German I got from former World Memory Champion Dr. Gunther Carsten’s book :
For everyone who would like to save the trouble of creating a system yourself, you should check out our sister page Thinkkniht: You will memory training images for the Major System Classic 1-digit, Major System Classic 2-digit, Major System Visual 1-digit, Major System Visual 2-digit and many more.
How to use your Major System
The easiest thing about your Major System is to use it. You already learned how to create your path with the method of loci in the first episode of How to become a Memory Champion. Bring those two systems together and use associations like you learned in the second episode. That is all. You should now be able to remember as many numbers as you like. Just translate the images you remember back to the digits. With the help of your elephant path you will bring them back in the right order.
Do you remember my example with the banana and the table from the second episode? If not, I will repeat it for you: You want to remember the banana and your journey point is the table. In this case the banana would be your word for your 3rd-level association 922 (BaNaNa). Now you use your imagination to create a little story worth remembering. And it is even easier than to memorize exactly the word banana (like you must in the championship disciplines for words), because it doesn’t matter if you remember one or many – the number stays the same. Ok, you may argue that BaNaNaS should be the number 9220, but since you know for a fact whether you use a 3rd-level or 4th-level system it simply doesn’t matter, because every optional consonant is irrelevant. Let’s have a look at a few possible associations with the banana and the table:
- The table is not made of wood, but out of bananas instead. You better do not stand on it!
- There is a boxing ring on the table, where two bananas fight to the death.
- Why to make it complex? Just take the banana and smash it on the table. Weeks later you will still find parts of the banana all over your place.
That’s it! You are now able to start your training. The actual world record in 5 minute Numbers is 500 digits by Wang Feng and Johannes Mallow (October 2013). Johannes is using a 3rd-level Major System.