What should I memorize?

So you’ve learned some basic mnemonic techniques like the method of loci, the link system, and the wardrobe system. Having learned the how, though, you immediately encounter the question of what: What should you memorize?

Right away certain things come to mind, most of them mnemonic challenges we encountered in school: memorizing the U.S. presidents, memorizing the fifty U.S. states and their capitals, memorizing the countries of the world and their capitals. These challenges are perfectly suited to mnemonics, comprising simple lists of information that can be placed along a mnemonic journey or linked to a list of peg words.

And these, naturally, were the first things I memorized or am still memorizing. However, I also noticed that finding this information in a simple, printable format was surprisingly difficult. So I have set about correcting this deficit by creating exactly such lists in Google Docs. Here enjoy:

Countries and capitals of the world printable list

U.S. states and capitals printable list

U.S. presidents printable list

While I’m at it, I’ll also observe that all these lists have something in common, namely that they are around 50 items in length. There are 50 U.S. states; 44 presidents; 49 countries in Asia, 54 in Africa, 50 in Europe, and 50 in North America, South America, Australia and Oceania combined. There are also, as it happens, 47 Super Bowl winners (soon to be 48) and 53 players on a football team. Even more significantly, to my mind, the alphabet times two equals 52, and there are 52 playing cards in a deck.

What this suggests, to me, is that these lists can be linked in a wardrobe system. I’m still experimenting with the system myself, but basically I’m beginning by accumulating simple alphabetical lists to serve as peg words. These include the radio alphabet along with alphabets of animals, modes of transportation, musical instruments, mythical creatures, and common objects. For convenience I’ve organized them into a spreadsheet of useful alphabets.

Along these same lines, I noticed that there are also a number of items in lists of 12 that would be nice to memorize. All of us of course already know one list of twelve, namely the months of the year, so this can serve immediately as a list of peg words. Other groups of 12 include birthstones, Western and Chinese Zodiac signs, the twelve apostles, the twelve tribes of Israel, and the Labors of Hercules. I’ve placed all six of these lists in a single printable document:

Correspondences of 12 items for memorization

I’ve also been experimenting with the different mnemonic systems mentioned above, and I’ll make one last observation regarding this early stage of memory design. In switching between mnemonic systems, I thought it would be easier to take something I’ve already memorized – say, the countries and capitals of Europe, via a memory palace – and transfer it to a different system, i.e. the wardrobe system, by way of experiment. This, as it turns out, was a mistake. After all, if you’ve already memorized something, why re-memorize it, especially when forming new links could muddy up the images you already have? Use your time to learn something new, and your images will be fresh and crisp.

Think of another list of 12 or 50 items that would be good to memorize? Write it in the comments.

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