I’m teaching an upcoming course on the Art of Memory. It’ll be an hour a week for five weeks starting on July 10th at 10:00 am on Saturday mornings. I’ll be using the online learning platform Hyperlink.Academy. I hope you’ll have the chance to join me and a group of people interested in exploring the topic.
I’ve had a personal memory practice since I was about eleven years old. I started with an old correspondence course from the 1940s that I found on my parents’ bookshelf. I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty expansive. I’ve realized that the original system I learned was only a small fraction of some of the powerful techniques that humankind has created and evolved over the last 20,000 years. Sadly, the majority of this knowledge, which was once commonplace, has disappeared in Western culture.
As a kid, I used the techniques as they pertained to magic and parlor tricks like counting cards and Rubic’s cubes. Later I learned how to bend and apply them other methods. I learned new methods and used them to memorize material for classes. I discovered I could remember vast troves of information both for pleasure and for work.
Since then, I’ve been researching into the history of mnemotechniques in Western culture. I’ve been uncovering the practice in other oral and indigenous cultures. As a result, I’ve seen and experimented with dozens of other methods. Some are better and more flexible than others.
It’s rare that I encounter people familiar with even one or two of these methods. There are lots of books and internet fora dedicated to some of them. They’re generally esoteric, incomplete, or both. On the whole, they’re difficult to discover, and often even harder to learn—much less practice.
In 2011, Joshua Foer ignited some interest with his book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. He describes the magic of some of the extant systems and nibbles around the edges. But he doesn’t detail how to enter the space and leaves the topic as esoteric as he began. His book motivates the “why”, but doesn’t describe the practical “how”.
I have seen and read scores of hucksterish and facile approaches. They usually outline a handful of memory “tricks” which some people use intuitively. Most touch on only one or two aspects of a much larger and richer memory tradition.
I’ve also followed some of the bigger memory-related sites online. They discuss many pieces of the whole. But they don’t help newcomers get a bigger picture of what is possible or how to start a practice. Most people want something more practical for daily life. Many start out with interest, but they don’t get very far before abandoning the idea because they don’t find the benefit.
I know there is an easier way.
Based on my experience, I’d like to provide a solid overview and history of the topic. My goal is to give beginners a practical entry point. We’ll look at and practice the bigger and most useful techniques. We’ll also discuss some of the lesser known methods and where they can be applied.
I encourage students to bring a practical list of things they’d like to memorize for use in the course.
After a few weeks, students should have a solid base of knowledge upon which to found a regular memory practice for the rest of their lives.
Those interested can read a copy of the syllabus. If you have any questions about the course or want to discuss if it’s right for you, please reach out.
If you can’t join us for the first cohort this summer, I’ll likely offer it again in either the Fall or Winter.
I’ve thumbed through it quickly and done some targeted searches of the text. From all appearances, it looks like she’s approaching the topic of memory from a neuroscientist’s perspective and talking about broad psychology and culture.
There are a few references to the method of loci and a tangential reference to the phonetic major system in chapter 5. She approaches these briefly with a mention of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein and his PAO system (without using the word Person-Action-Object), but dismisses all too quickly.
But you would have to do a lot of memorizing before you can actually use these techniques (and others like them) to remember the stuff you’re interested in remembering. If the thought of doing this kind of mental labor sounds exhausting, I’m right there with you. I don’t have the dedication or time. Unless you’re motivated to become an elite memory athlete or your life’s dream is to memorize 111,700 digits of pi, I suspect you don’t, either. Most of us will never want or need to memorize that kind or that amount of information. But many of us would like to be better at memorizing the ten things on our to-do list, our Wi-Fi password, or the six things we need at the grocery store.
I’ll try to delve into the rest of the text shortly, but I was really hoping for more on the mnemonics front. I mnemonists won’t get much out of it on the techniques front, but might find it useful for an overview of the neuroscience or psychology fronts from Hermann Ebbinghaus onwards.
I’ve just noticed that if one translates the year 2020 into words using the phonetic mnemonic system one gets any of the following:
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) practiced memory techniques. His memory system has some similarities with the Major System but seems more complicated in its letter choices: 1. “b” and “c,” the first two consonants in the alphabet. 2. “d” from “duo,” “w” from “two.” 3. “t” from “tres,” the other may wait awhile.
ReadMnemonist by Richard H. Rovere(The New Yorker)
PROFILE of Dr. Bruno Furst, a memory expert, mental telepathist, hypnotist, & professional graphologist, & founder of the School of Memory & Concentration.…
No need to be a Houdini or a Trilby to work these amazing card tricks or mind-reading feats. Just let Dr. Bruno Furst train your mind. By Dr. Bruno Furst (Dr. Bruno Furst, lawyer and psychologist, is the director and founder of the school of Memory and Concentration with headquarters in New York and branches all over the country, South America, and Canada. Its Correspondence Course Division extends over five continents. Dr. Furst's system is taught at many Universities, Colleges, Adult Education Centers, Business Firms, and Trade Associations.)
My post on the history of the major system 13 listed Major Beniowski as the source of the name of the Major System.
However, a reader commented with some skepticism that the Major System is named after the Major.
This is a fantastic website, but there are several important errors on this page. For example, is there really any evidence that the “Major” system was named after Major Beniowski? I’ve never seen any proof of this, and it seems highly unlikely, for the following reasons: (a) Then wouldn’t it be called the “Beniowski System”? (And if he’d been just “Mr. Beniowski”, would anyone call it the “Mr. System”?); (b) Beniowski was a fairly obscure character in the history of mnemonics, compared to Feinaigle, Paris, et al.; (c) There are significant differences between Beniowski’s phonetic key and the most popular one today: i.e., Beniowski used /h/ and /w/, which means he wasn’t following Aimé Paris directly; and (d) MOST IMPORTANTLY, Tony Buzan was calling it the “Major System” at least 30 years ago, but only in the sense that it’s the “major” (primary, etc.) system for memorizing numbers – there was no mention whatsoever of Beniowski. (Of course examples of “minor” systems would be shapes, 2 = swan, and rhyming, 2 = shoe.)
Here’s a great, short bio of Major Bartlomiej Beniowski: http://www.chartistancestors.co.uk/major-bartlomiej-beniowski-chartisms-military-adviser/
Does anyone have any background info on the origin of the term? Has Tony Buzan ever talked about where he got the name from? I don’t think that Harry Lorayne used the term Major System, but I’m not sure.
I spent some time last night quickly skimming through my copy of Bruno Furst’s You Can Remember (a home study course in 12 booklets, rather than a book) and copies of How to Remember (Greenberg, 1944; I’ve got the 1947 edition) which was later reprinted as The practical way to better memory. In all of them he’s pretty consistent in using the phrases “The Basic List” (for 0-9 letter/numbers) and “The Number Code” to refer to the functionality of the Major System. That I can see he definitely doesn’t use Major System to describe the idea.
Furst doesn’t make any references to prior art or work in the historical record except the one which @Graham has mentioned. It appears on p131 of How to Remember as:
This numerical system has been used by Berol, Roth, Loisette and other writers on the subject, and it seems pointless not to avail ourselves of a tested method which has proved satisfactory for many years.
There’s also a reference on page 56 of How to Remember:
Books of modern times dealing with association-laws, for instance those by Loisette and Poehlmann, are divided as follows in respect to the differences in concepts from a purely practical point of view
I’m digging up copies of David M. Roth’s Roth Memory Course, Felix Berol’s Berol System (which may have included work by his brothers William and Max), and Christof Ludwig Poehlmann aka Christopher Louis Pelman about whom I’ve found a nice trove of material on a related method at https://www.ennever.com/histories/history386p.php?sitever=standard. I don’t have much hope that any of these references will credit any of their prior sources as most of them seem to have made their livings on their courses and writing and wouldn’t have wanted to “give away their sources as potential competition”.
There is a chance that Major Beniowski was the source of the system for all of these authors given the relatively wide spread nature of his work during his life, his international travel, and the fact that he spoke multiple languages. But at the same time there’s a large number of people using this or similar methods in the 1800’s. Having more direct evidence would be useful. I only became aware of the moniker by seeing it on the Wikipedia page, and previously used the “number system” as Furst did to describe it.
I do notice that Furst uses the phrase “Furst Method” at least once in his correspondence course, but it’s in reference to the Major System and several other peg and related systems (notably not the method of loci in *You Can Remember*). It seems fairly regular for practitioners of this time period who were writing books to use their surname and call it their method.
One interesting case seems to be that of Marcus Dwight Larrow alias Silas Holmes alias Alphonse Loisette (referenced by Furst) who peddled a system for inordinate sums (including to Mark Twain who gave him a testimonial at the time). His system was exposed in a book in 1888 and was interesting or influential enough to have garnered a book review in the journal Science (see: “Loisette” exposed, together with Loisette’s Complete System of Physiological Memory. By G. S. FELLOWS. New York, The Author. 8‡ 25 cents published 20 July 1888).
It’s an approximately 600-year-old mystery that continues to stump scholars, cryptographers, physicists, and computer scientists: a roughly 240-page medieval codex written in an indecipherable language, brimming with bizarre drawings of esoteric plants, naked women, and astrological symbols. Known...
a roughly 240-page medieval codex written in an indecipherable language, brimming with bizarre drawings of esoteric plants, naked women, and astrological symbols. Known as the Voynich manuscript, it defies classification, much less comprehension. ❧
Something I hadn’t thought of before, but which could be highly likely given the contents: What if the manuscript is a personal memory palace? Without supporting materials, it’s entirely likely that what’s left on the page is a substrate to which the author attached the actual content and not having the other half, the entire enterprise is now worthless?
Annotated on February 16, 2020 at 08:51PM
All we know for certain, through forensic testing, is that the manuscript likely dates to the 15th century, when books were handmade and rare. ❧
This may provide some additional proof that it’s a memory aid in the potential form of a notebook or commonplace book. What were the likelihoods of these being more common that other books/texts? What other codes were used at the time? Was the major system or a variant in use at the time?
Annotated on February 16, 2020 at 08:54PM
Replied toa post by Davey Moloney (daveymoloney.com)
I’m glad that there’s some more modern research around this general idea. Of course the reliance of humans on the power of visual memory goes back to ancient Greece with the method of loci and from the Renaissance (or earlier) with the mnemonic major system.
I know both systems intimately well since the age of about 11, though I haven’t written much about them on my site. (I should fix this, though there are some related tangents within my memory category.) I did notice a large overlap with the major system and Gregg shorthand a while back, which leads me to believe that they’ve got an even richer back history than most may presume.
I’ve always been confounded that these systems aren’t better known in modern culture, though some sources have indicated that religious influences tamped down their proliferation in the 1500’s.
Overall, I was fairly impressed with his layout and positive teaching style, though I don’t particularly need some of the treacly motivation that he provided and which is primarily aimed at the complete novice. While I appreciate that for some, hearing this material may be the most beneficial, I would have preferred to have some of it presented visually. In general, I wouldn’t recommend this as a something to listen to on a commute as he frequently admonishes against doing some of the exercises he outlines while driving or operating heavy machinery.
Given the prevalence of and growth of memory systems from the mid-20th century onwards, I personally find it difficult to believe all of his personal story about “rediscovering” many of the memory methods he outlines, or at least to the extent to which he tempts the reader to believe.
Differences from Other Systems
Based on past experience, I really appreciate his methods for better remembering names with faces as his conceptualizations for doing this seemed better to me than the methods outlined by Bruno Furst. I do however, much prefer the major mnemonic system’s method for numbers over the Dominic system for it’s more logical and complete conversion of consonant sounds for most languages. The links between the letters and numbers in the major system are also much easier to remember and don’t require as much work to remember them. I also appreciate the major system for its deeper historical roots as well as for its precise overlap with the Gregg Shorthand method. The poorer structure of the Dominic system is the only evidence I can find to indicate that he seems to have separately re-discovered some of his memory methods.
I appreciated that most of his focus was on practical tasks like to do lists, personal appointments, names and faces, but wish he’d spent some additional time walking through general knowledge examples like he did for the list of the world’s oceans and seas.
While I appreciated his outlining the ability to calculate what day of the week any particular date falls on (something that most memory books don’t touch upon), he failed to completely specify the entire method. He also used a somewhat non-standard method for coding both the days of the week and the months of the year, though mathematically all of these systems are equivalent. I did appreciate his trying to encode a set up for individual years, which will certainly help many cut down on the mental mathematics, particularly as it relates to the dread many have for long division. Unfortunately, he didn’t go far enough and this is where he also failed to finish supplying the full details for all of the special cases for the years. He also failed to mention the discontinuities with the Gregorian versus the Julian calendar making his method more historically universal. For those interested, Wikipedia outlines some of the more familiar mathematical methods for determining the day of the week that a particular date would fall on.
Instead of having spent the time outlining the calendar, which is inherently difficult to do in audio format compared to printed format, he may have been better off having spent the time going into more depth memorizing poetry or prose as an extension of his small aside on memorizing quotes and presenting speeches.
I could have done without the bulk of the final disk which comprised mostly of tests for the material previously presented. The complete beginner may get more out of these exercises however. The final portion of the disk was more interesting as he did provide some philosophy on how memory systems engage both lobes of the brain within the right-brained/left-brained conceptualizations from neuropsychology.
While O’Brien doesn’t completely draw out his entire system, to many this may be a strong benefit as it forces individuals to create their own system within his framework. This is bound to help many to create stronger personalized links between their numbers and their images. The drawback the beginner may find for this is that they may find themselves ever tinkering with their own customized system, or even more likely rebuilding things from scratch when they discover the list of online resources from others that rely on people having a more standardized system.
O’Brien also provides more emphasis on creativity and visualization than some books, which will be very beneficial to many beginners.
Overall, while I’d generally recommend this to the average mnemonist, I’d recommend they approach it after having delved in a bit and learned the major system from somewhere else.
I’ve been a proponent and user of a variety of mnemonic systems since I was about eleven years old. The two biggest and most useful in my mind are commonly known as the “method of loci” and the “major system.” The major system is also variously known as the phonetic number system, the phonetic mnemonic system, or Hergione’s mnemonic system after French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Hérigone (1580-1643) who is thought to have originated its use.
The major system generally works by converting numbers into consonant sounds and then from there into words by adding vowels under the overarching principle that images (of the words) can be remembered more easily than the numbers themselves. For instance, one could memorize one’s grocery list of a hundred items by associating each shopping item on a numbered list with the word associated with the individual number in the list. As an example, if item 22 on the list is lemons, one could translate the number 22 as “nun” within the major system and then associate or picture a nun with lemons – perhaps a nun in full habit taking a bath in lemons to make the image stick in one’s memory better. Then at the grocery store, when going down one’s list, when arriving at number 22 on the list, one automatically translates the number 22 to “nun” which will almost immediately conjure the image of a nun taking a bath in lemons which gives one the item on the list that needed to be remembered. This comes in handy particularly when one needs to be able to remember large lists of items in and out of order.
The following generalized chart, which can be found in a hoard of books and websites on the topic, is fairly canonical for the overall system:
Mnemonic for remembering the numeral and consonant relationship
s, z, soft c
“z” is the first letter of zero; the other letters have a similar sound
t & d have one downstroke and sound similar (some variant systems include “th”)
n has two downstrokes
m has three downstrokes; m looks like a “3” on its side
last letter of four; 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other
L is the Roman Numeral for 50
/ʃ/ /ʒ/ /tʃ/ /dʒ/
j, sh, soft g, soft “ch”
a script j has a lower loop; g is almost a 6 rotated
k, hard c, hard g, hard “ch”, q, qu
capital K “contains” two sevens (some variant systems include “ng”)
script f resembles a figure-8; v sounds similar (v is a voiced f)
p is a mirror-image 9; b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around
Vowel sounds, w,h,y
w and h are considered half-vowels; these can be used anywhere without changing a word’s number value
There are a variety of ways to use the major system as a code in addition to its uses in mnemonic settings. When I was a youth, I used it to write coded messages and to encrypt a variety of things for personal use. After I had originally read Dr. Bruno Furst’s series of booklets entitled You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration1, I had always wanted to spend some time creating an alternate method of writing using the method. Sadly I never made the time to do the project, but yesterday I made a very interesting discovery that, to my knowledge, doesn’t seem to have been previously noticed!
My discovery began last week when I read an article in The Atlantic by journalist Dennis Hollier entitled How to Write 225 Words Per Minute with a Pen: A Lesson in the Lost Technology of Shorthand. 2 In the article, which starts off with a mention of the Livescribe pen – one of my favorite tools, Mr. Hollier outlines the use of the Gregg System of Shorthand which was invented by John Robert Gregg in 1888. The description of the method was intriguing enough to me that I read a dozen additional general articles on shorthand on the internet and purchased a copy of Louis A. Leslie’s two volume text Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method.3
I was shocked, on page x of the front matter, just before the first page of the text, to find the following “Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand”:
Gregg Shorthand is using EXACTLY the same consonant-type breakdown of the alphabet as the major system!
Apparently I wasn’t the first to have the idea to turn the major system into a system of writing. The fact that the consonant breakdowns for the major system coincide almost directly to those for the shorthand method used by Gregg cannot be a coincidence!
The Gregg system works incredibly well precisely because the major system works so well. The biggest difference between the two systems is that Gregg utilizes a series of strokes (circles and semicircles) to indicate particular vowel sounds which allows for better differentiation of words which the major system doesn’t generally take into consideration. From an information theoretic standpoint, this is almost required to make the coding from one alphabet to the other possible, but much like ancient Hebrew, leaving out the vowels doesn’t remove that much information. Gregg, also like Hebrew, also uses dots and dashes above or below certain letters to indicate the precise sound of many of its vowels.
The upside of all of this is that the major system is incredibly easy to learn and use, and from here, learning Gregg shorthand is just a hop, skip , and a jump – heck, it’s really only just a hop because the underlying structure is so similar. Naturally as with the major system, one must commit some time to practicing it to improve on speed and accuracy, but the general learning of the system is incredibly straightforward.
Because the associations between the two systems are so similar, I wasn’t too surprised to find that some of the descriptions of why certain strokes were used for certain letters were very similar to the mnemonics for why certain letters were used for certain numbers in the major system.
One thing I have noticed in my studies on these topics is the occasional references to the letter combinations “NG” and “NK”. I’m curious why these are singled out in some of these systems? I have a strong suspicion that their inclusion/exclusion in various incarnations of their respective systems may be helpful in dating the evolution of these systems over time.
I’m aware that various versions of shorthand have appeared over the centuries with the first recorded having been the “Tironian Notes” of Marcus Tullius Tiro (103-4 BCE) who apparently used his system to write down the speeches of his master Cicero. I’m now much more curious at what point the concepts for shorthand and the major system crossed paths or converged? My assumption would be that it happened in the late Renaissance, but it would be nice to have the underlying references and support for such a timeline. Perhaps it was with Timothy Bright’s publication of Characterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character (1588) 4, John Willis’s Art of Stenography (1602) 5, Edmond Willis’s An abbreviation of writing by character (1618) 6, or Thomas Shelton’s Short Writing (1626) 7? Shelton’s system was certainly very popular and well know because it was used by both Samuel Pepys and Sir Isaac Newton.
Certainly some in-depth research will tell, though if anyone has ideas, please don’t hesitate to indicate your ideas in the comments.
UPDATE on 7/6/14:
I’m adding a new chart making the correspondence between the major system and Gregg Shorthand more explicit.
Furst B. You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration. Markus-Campbell Co.; 1965.