Yes, I couldn’t agree more Graham. I think people are quick to forget that is in itself a system. When I fist started to meet other mnemonists the first thing I would always ask would be how many locations do you have ? The responses I got surprised me on some occasions.
I think you most likely know Dr. Yip Swe Chooi from some competition when you were both active in competition. I had one such surprising response from him.
He said he had about 10, 000 locations. I politely explained that this was not only unlikely but, that it’s virtually impossible. I proceeded to explain that what I mean by location was something the size of a room as in the term Roman Room. To have such a large number is reasonable but, they won’t be familiar.
I went on to explain that, I had many jobs in different factories in the past and would frequently change my job. This gave me lots of machinery and a vast amount of locations compared to most people. At some point, I was a post man for a year and, after a decade of factory work I had a career change and spent most of the next decade canvassing so, I was walking around different towns all the time. This gives me an obvious advantage in the same way as a London taxi drivers in terms of locations.
He, as a person with the title of Doctor would very unlikely have changed jobs for the sake of it at the rate that I used to and, as such, it would be inconceivable that he would have as many locations as this that were all familiar.
Dr. Yip went on to explain that under these terms, he has 3-4,000 locations. This was clearly the correct answer in the context of what I was trying to find out. The context I usually give is a location is a room or some place that is the size of at least a small room on the average.
Personally, I have 2,000 locations in the context of a location being a room or some place of equivalent size. This is obviously more than most but, only half of what Dr. Yip or Dominic has.
I asked the same of Ben in 2008 and I was really shocked to find that he only had 500. As I think you know, he knows these locations very well and that’s the important thing. I say only, he became World Memory Champion for the third time later that year so, it’s obviously a lot still.
As it happens, even though I don’t ask this question anywhere near as often as I used to, I did happen to ask Dr. Yips protege this same question today. Andy Fong, who, like Dr. Yip has also memorized a dictionary has significantly less than Dr. Yip. Actually, we haven’t finished the conversation but, in the same terms I estimate Andy’s number of room sized locations as pretty much the same as mine but, he measure them in the same way as Dr. Yip…
I always make this distinction for a reason. I spent many years studying mnemonics but, I knew there were these people that had something I didn’t. I knew it existed as my Grandfather had stuck his car number plate in my head as a child. I literally read it once and I still remember it thirty years later. When I did eventually find it I already knew it was the single most important memory system and I considered it would be so before I even found it as a system. I say found, I didn’t work it out. I spent many years trying to and failed. Eventually I found it in a book and two memory courses all in the space of one month by three authors.
One thing I know from working in these factories and driving forklift trucks is that, no matter what memory system you do use, you cannot fit a square peg in a round hole. A shelf will only store a box up to a certain size and a location is no different.
I often teach people memory and this is by far the biggest problem and it’s not generally covered by memory books in great detail.
Typically, someone will ask me for some help. Usually, they understand a 100 digit system and are either in the process or making one or they already have done.
It’s a big disappointment to some of them when I do start to teach them because, if they have started and they have used their locations in the same way as Doctor Yip and Andy Fong, the first thing I do is to spot it then dismantle it. This is something they are very reluctant to allow me to do. But, it’s something they end up happy with having done it.
Once they have taken apart say, 50 locations after I have explained this is really on about 10 locations, I tell them to make more. Once they have made more, I go through them with them. They have to describe the layout of the room to me or, if it’s outside, the view, the material the floor is made of, what the bath is made of in the bathroom and so on.
Once I can understand the locations myself, I can put images in that I create but, using people that they know. So, I already know that the objects I use will be strong and I give them guidance on the type of people to use because they will be familiar to them. Hence the word family as well. In doing so, I will number their locations for them and they have to imagine it. Sometimes, they don’t know what they are memorizing because I throw in images from different systems.
So, in the space of ten locations I will typically number them with ten images but, the images may come from different systems so just ten numbers will be perhaps, the Major system, the Dominic system, the Number Rhyme system or the Number Shape system.
Like clockwork they always recognize that I am instructing them to number their locations because they will recognize the pattern which is the same or similar to whichever book they have read. Then, I explain that they can use any system and this is why I vary the images. To teach them that the systems are interactive and that they all work equally well but, one system is not equal to the others.
That system as you know, is the Roman Room system. I spend a great deal of time with them in the beginning just memorizing ten numbers. Ten single digit numbers will usually take me about four hours to teach. Obviously I could stick a ten digit number in their head in next to no time but, I prefer to keep their focus on what’s important.
Dr. Yip and Andy are obviously excellent mnemonists and I steer people in a different direction from their system but, I do it for a reason. It’s not the best way to start off. It works and it works extremely well but, if someone learns by using parts or a room as they do, they soon come unstuck when faced with something unexpected they have to memorize as the necessary images won’t fit into the allocated space. Shrinking images is obviously one solution but, somethings are not easy to see when this is done and it is also quite hard to do. Better to learn the other way around and use this maximum storage system they use after gaining experience. Then, you can do both if you want.
After spending considerable time with people teaching them how to interact with any given location they sometimes confess that one of the numbers makes no sense to them. This is like a red herring number to them. I sometimes put in a number that has no connection to the image or person. I do this to emphasize the power of the system of location. They pretty much instantly realize that, the object does not need to resemble the number in any way because we have created and association and familiarity by using the location.
Anything can be connected as you know and many of my numbers are completely arbitrary but, they are very clear images of people and things. I don’t really care if there is no connection between my images and numbers because I will make a connection by using the power of the location.
My normal recommendation is something I pinched off the Government. 5 a day like fruit and veg. I ask people to make 5 locations per day. Often, they want to do more but, the rule is, if you make 10 today, you still have to make 5 tomorrow. This means that there is no excuse for anyone I teach to say, I didn’t have time. If they don’t have time to do that, I don’t have time to teach them.
This is ongoing and after the first episode/s or numbering, with me telling them a lot about why they remember the images we have created together and teaching them how to interact with seemingly empty or inert locations, they have to memorize 5 a day as well. So, they have to do a little bit of thinking each day because I have taken the stabilizers off the bike so-as-to-speak. This focuses their mind on just 5 numbers but, whereas Ben Pridmore would have had thousands of interactions with each number of his, they have not, so, they need to ‘get familiar’ or ‘make associations’. They have the locations to do it first and can put the new numbers in those locations thus, they are growing their memory organically. This also removes the fear of ‘running our of places’.
Just doing 5 a day seems pointless to them usually as they have generally read a book that gives them big hopes of some massive thing they intend to memorize. However, this focus serves a purpose. Firstly, it makes them have no reason to put it off. Doing this small amount each day is an easy load for the brain to cope with but, the rules of Ebbinghaus still apply so, in a short time, they can become really good. I do have speed exercises for them but, this is not really important. The only reason I give them instruction on how to speed up is because there’s a good chance they will think they know enough by this point and not see any new improvement.
It’s a hard thing for many to grasp that by spending more time thinking about something in as many ways as possible makes something familiar and gives them new associations they can attach things to.
I think of it like this. If someone can write 5 locations per day, they have enough to become World Memory Champion within 100 days. Realistically, this isn’t going to happen but, it’s enough to explain the point when they want to jump ahead before they are ready. IT’s not the system, it the familiarity with the system and familiarity with the locations.
By reading about someone like Ben, they may want to use a Major 1,000 system. I steer them away from this like the plague. Their reasoning is usually that the best mnemonists in the World use this system. What I tell them is that, if they want to use the Major system then, use the Major 100 system first. Usually I get some resistance to this with statements like, I would be better off learning the bigger system because over time I will have spent more time using that system and this is quite logical.
Usually, this can be explained with the single digit system being compared to the alphabet. A person may want to learn to speed read or write a book but, first they need to ‘master’ the alphabet. Dominic O’Brien uses a simpler system than this and Wang Feng uses a simpler system than Dominic. The one thing they have in common is that they have both mastered these systems.
If a person masters the Major 100 system first then, when they have mastered it and find it a bit tedious because they are memorizing marathon events in training or something then, it does make sense for them not to get bored or risk getting images mixed up due to the quantity and similarity or material so, it’s pretty easy to stick a zero in front or every number up to 99 to make the Major 100 the for first 100 of the Major 1,000. Instantly they will notice that they are still awesome at the first 100 and complete rubbish at the last 900.
For anyone that doesn’t go around memorizing a couple of thousand digits in one sitting, the 100 systems are not worth changing. Why learn a 1,000 digit system if you only ever memorize lists of 100 things or even 500 things ? It’s not until you memorize an amount against the clock that is large enough to cause confusion by mixing up images that it become worth it or if you don’t mix up the images as Boris does and are able to do such vast memorization and just get fed up of seeing the same old images.
So, given all this, it’s clear that the important thing about systems is knowing which system to study. To me this is obvious nowadays, it’s the location system.
I think that even if I sat down now, I could write another 2,000 locations that I have actually been to by using Google Earth but, for most people, they will not have actually been to this many locations. I am 40 years you so, my age means that I will have four times more locations than a ten year old and two times more locations as a twenty year old on the average but, I have seen the locations more times.
Every time we visit a location we are hard-wired to remember it and I happen to have visited lots but, some people have stayed in the same jobs for years. People who like walking may have many more outside locations than people who like talking who may have many locations inside friends houses. A person that has had the same office at work for 20 years will know that office better than a person like me who might have changed jobs. Changing jobs is more common with young people and I was the same.
My point is this. We all have a limit. We can exceed this limit but, at any given point in time each of us is only ‘familiar’ with a given number of locations. We can ‘make’ ourselves familiar with new ones by visiting them or fake it by using Google Earth and it will work, albeit to a lesser extent.
As we talked of Boris already, he happens to be a prime example of extending his familiarity. One year I was wandering around London making locations. I watch a lot of politics and news so, it made sense to me to take this walk around the places I see most often on television. Places like Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace are always on the television so, I knew these would be reinforced constantly even though I rarely go to London.
I walked around first and decided that I knew the layout of the journey I wanted. Then, I walked around the journey again. It was about 100 locations of a large size with some later alteration with Google Earth. I then walked around these repeatedly. I walked it backwards as well. It was a roasting hot day and I could have easily made many more locations but, I wanted to make good ones rather than make say 500 locations for the sake of it. If I wanted to get poor quality locations, i’d have done it from Google Earth. I remember sweating because it was so hot. I remember how I felt, I remember talking to a policeman and asking him what a building was called. I remember the coffee I had outside Parliament. The locations are to me ‘emotionalized’.
What’s this got to do with Boris ? Well, after I finished, i went back to the beginning of my journey. There, I bumped into Boris. Boris had been doing exactly the same thing as me. I hadn’t bumped into him though because he had used the same starting point but, gone in a different direction. I would have no idea where to go in Berlin but, it must be like London. London is full of memorable landmarks so, I advised Boris that, if he gets the chance, he would be better off going the opposite way to the places I had been as he would be more likely to see these on television for reinforcement in future. Not surprisingly, Boris was already aware of this and had already constructed a journey in exactly this place on a previous visit to London. He knew how important it was as well.
By the way, Graham, I like your posts. I tried to work out who you were before you revealed your name and had you narrowed down to two people by using the rankings from things you said. Hopefully you will get back to competitions some day. Even if you don’t fancy getting all hard-core again like some of them, there’s always space for arbiters with competition experience.