What colour was that phone-number?

If I’m lucky, one or two readers will actually relate to this problem. For the rest, you are treated here to a brief tour through the brain offices of a visual-spatial learner and his troublesome memory.

The V-S cognitive profile, which appears in the diagnostics as a learning disorder, isn’t all that bad as far as learning disabilities are concerned. Dyslexia, Aphasia, Autism-spectrum disorders are far more troublesome and harder to manage without direct support, very early in someone’s development. The V-S profile, while certainly an obstacle for those in the early stages of formal education, actually has its benefits if you can survive long enough to make use of them. Most V-S learners have a sort of partial photographic memory (think of a water colour copy rather than an albumin print. It loses some of the detail and you can’t copy text into it, but you get the general image down pretty well). The weakness is that abstract information does not easily code into images. The easiest example of this problem in action is phone numbers.

I often joke that I can’t remember more than three phone numbers at any one time, but it isn’t much of a joke because it’s completely true. Because of the largely abstract and arbitrary nature of a phone number, there is nothing for my memory to hold onto so that it can be dragged into long-term memory and labelled properly for retrieval. I rarely have confidence that the number I recall is actually a real number and not some random collection of numbers that I think is a real number. Since repetition only helps for a short time, any number that has not been used in more than a week will become indistinguishable from any other group of numbers. This goes for all combinations of numbers: student numbers, bank cards, alarm codes, prices, numerical addresses, birth-dates. Dates are troublesome, unless I can fit them into a sequence or make some visual connection with the chronological date.

So how did I manage to commit my new Oxford student number to memory in about 20 minutes? I can’t say I memorized it (unless you use that term in its broadest meaning of deliberate effort towards retention and recall).

This system strikes me as silly, like I’m cheating somehow. But it works very well and I am comforted by its historical precedents. I also know that unlike most people, I actually have an advantage over others in using this particular mnemonic technique. I remind myself that some people would much prefer rote memorization to this.

My Oxford student ID is a 4-letter / 4-number combination. The letters follow a pattern built on the name of my College so that’s easy to remember. My student number is a six digit code, without letters. Remembering the letters is useless if I can’t remember the numbers. The mnemonic ‘trick’ is to fool my brain into remembering the numbers by replacing the numbers with something else that will stick.

I gave each number, from 0-9, a colour and a texture. That code is fixed to that number sequence and although the choices were largely arbitrary all numbers, no matter what their purpose, follow this code. The number three, no longer some abstract value, is now a three-shaped carving of deep green malachite. In this way numbers are arranged in sequences of red bakelite, dull copper sheet, grey slate, Afghani lapis, polished walnut and dense, white felt. In my long term memory my student number is now a construction of sandstone, packed up against a wedge of light red bakelite, a copper clad bit of numerical furniture, and a white felt cut-out leaning against it at the right-hand side. The only tricky part is to keep the order straight but because it’s now an image, not an abstract number, repetition actually works. Repetition of the image, visualized internally, reinforces the memory.

“Seven, lucky seven”

The really silly thing is that, with practice, I don’t need to remember the colours and textures to get the numbers. Once the images are fixed in the long-term memory the numbers turn into an acronym for the image. My memory thinks it’s keeping some complex picture in order, because somehow that’s the vital form of knowledge and the numbers are simply its crude representation.

You are probably thinking that this must be awkward and time consuming. I will confess, it took about two days to decide on the final physical aspects of each number. It’s important to pick characteristics that are vivid but also familiar, and most of these colours and textures were chosen because they were the first thing that jumped out when I thought of it. The depth of the connection is essential for the system to work.

Of course, I’m not inventing the wheel here. Visualization, as aposed to rote memorization, was considered the most powerful mnemonic technique amongst the classical writers and later Humanists and esoteric writers like Giordano Bruno built this method into a massive and complex system of universal knowledge.

At this point I’m content to stuff apples, magazines, and soap into old filing cabinets in an effort to remember my Latin case endings. Whatever works.

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