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Thomas Mc Rae
[To Thomas Mc Rae’s index]

Memory Games

By Tomas Mc Rae, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, ©2009

Memorisation is a fascinating and seemingly complex subject. In this paper I will start by looking at its history and then give simple systems that each and every one of you can use with ease. For starters, while there are numerous theories nobody is actually certain how memory is stored and accessed in the human brain. Despite this, memory keeps doing what it does. In this paper I want to cover systems used to memorise and recall things and even give you some techniques you can use yourself.

Ancient Times

Memory systems go far back in history to times when most of the po­pu­la­tion was il­lite­rate or writ­ing sys­tems did not even exist. We can only spe­cu­late on who used them and what they in­volved. I be­lieve the ancient bards, shamans and tribal wise peoples em­ployed them to main­tain the annals of their people and me­mo­rise rituals em­ployed since time im­me­mo­ri­al.

The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory
by Salvador Dali

One method used was cre­at­ing ever ex­pand­ing sagas, many of which are still ex­tant. Such sagas were usu­al­ly in song or formal chants. I have en­coun­tered both types in North Gha­naian peoples in Iron Age so­cie­ties which are fast dy­ing under the in­flux of the modern world. In Ghana’s Ashan­ti King­dom, how­ever, this lore re­mains pre­served in the com­plex language of The Talking Drums (Lunna) and is still in use today.

Un­fortunately few young people those days were in­ter­ested in taking up an ag­ing lore master’s mantle and much im­por­tant local ma­terial is lost an­nual­ly as rock ’n roll and movies take over. This sorry si­tu­a­tion per­sists world­wide.

Greeks such as Homer may have em­ployed systems to create and me­mo­rise their tales of The Trojan Wars. We stand on firmer ground when we come to the Romans. They left co­pi­ous records of tech­niques ef­fi­cient enough to me­mo­rise whole books for sub­se­quent re­cital to au­di­ences. The systems of as­so­ci­ative me­mory used then still re­main valid.

First they envisaged a large house room by room, one room for each chapter of their tale. Next they mentally placed specific objects in each room: tables, chairs, rugs and skins, weapons etc. From there they placed objects on floor and furniture for association with specific incidents in the story. A small statue of a soldier indicating a battle, others of a young man and woman for a romance … And so the symbols grew. Making them ridiculous or erotic also helped in memorising the whole chapter.

Some months ago the ABC Science programme “Catalyst” showed a movie in which a man was given a shuffled pack of playing cards which he quickly looked over. He then began naming the 52 cards one by one while a researcher confirmed each was correct.

When asked how it was done he explained that, rather than mentally create a house, he walked all round historical London associating each card with a specific building, statue, area. On memorising the pack he linked each card with the appropriate artefact and called those to memory as he worked. A—a variant on the ancient method.

Renaissance Times

Memory techniques were utilised by Renaissance scholars. Giordano Bruno actually wrote several books on the subject and travelled Europe one step ahead of the In­qui­si­tion teaching his methods. It was his expertise that led to his downfall. Invited by the Doge of Venice to travel there and teach him and others Bru­no, a dif­fi­cult cha­rac­ter at best, quar­reled with the Doge and was finally handed over to the in­qui­si­tors. After years of harsh im­pri­son­ment they tied him upside down to a stake and burned him alive. Sic transit Bruno!

During the reign of James VIth of Scotland William Schaw was appointed Mater of the King’s Buildings. Schaw was in­stru­mental in or­ganising masons lodges into some form of order even requiring each to maintain written records for the first time. He wrote up a system of statutes govern­ing all as­pects of a stone­mason’s work, re­mu­ne­ra­tion, duties, and conduct, pro­ducing a second version a few years later. He is also on re­cord as re­quiring each mason to under­go regular tests of their me­mories. Those who failed had to pay stiff fines.

It is not clear what was involved in those memory tests, could it have involved the lore and rituals of those early lodges and their sym­bolism? In many English oriented lodges candidates in the degrees are given lectures pertaining to all three involving symbols displayed on a large diagram. Solomon’s Temple forms the core around which each lecture is written but it contains a great deal of symbolism which arises from each portion of the Temple depicted. Remember our Roman house? While Scottish lodges no longer use those diagram lectures one can’t help wonder if simpler versions existed in the earlier days?

Modern Times

Displays of associative memory began to appear in Victorian British music halls and continue to this day. In such an act a range of consecutive numbers starting with ONE was displayed on a blackboard. Twenty was the usual total.

The performer sat blindfolded while an assistant called for members of the audience to call out any object to link with a given number. Once the list was completed people called out any number and performer gave the object with lightning speed. Any object called he gave the number. Finally he would recite the entire list backwards or odd number forwards even ones backwards or vice versa.

There were some astounding acts over the years. In one such an attractive young lady sat on stage while large European telephone directories from several capital cities were passed around. Give her a name and address from any and she would recite the number. Amazing memory? No amazing wireless communication with good backup team yet it astounded audiences. Lovely lady had her long hair hanging down one side of her face. Work it out.

Mention must also be made of mnemonics which are invaluable to students in all disciplines. Here we create one or more words from the initials of the items to be me­mo­rised or even use puns. For example meet ROY G BI/. Who? Me­mo­rise this and you will never forget the colours of the rainbow … red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

The planets? Men very easily make jugs serve useful necessary purposes. Great stuff! Now you have in sequence Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, & Pluto. Complicated alas by the Powers that Be recently declaring Pluto is not a planet but an asteroid.

Mnemonics can be applied to virtually anything, I used them to me­mo­rise con­sti­tu­ents of com­plex che­mical so­lu­tions. Most being rather naughty I will not ex­plain those fur­ther.

A Modern Associative Memory System

I make no claims of any role in developing this system which I have used successfully onstage and privately since the 1950s. The techniques involved in Associative Memory, as I stated, have been used since Time Immemorial, I first came across them as a child in a short American movie in WW2 years entitled “Memory Tricks”. Too young to ap­pre­ci­ate this I recalled its system of me­mo­rising ten objects in my 20s when I started using dif­fer­ent methods and found a rhyming method that expanded that in the movie. I believe Dale Carnegie taught a memory system as part of his course.

All associative methods involve memorising a series of objects, then learning to link this known foundation to random objects thrown at the presenter by an audience. Nouns and common names are not generally accepted.

During one performance I had to veto my assistant when he started rejecting Si­mu­li­um for number 2. As an en­to­mo­lo­gist this happened to be the insect that do­mi­nated my life for many years. And a colleague in the audience threw it at me. Being a biting fly, I envisaged it attacking the shoe associated with 2 and impressed the audience by spelling it for my helper as well.

In my act I had numbers 1–20 written on a large blackboard by my sidekick who then invited people to call out any number and also any object to associate with it. He then recorded this on the board. When the list was complete anybody calling out a number would get the relevant object called out by me, blindfolded and seated where I could not see the writing.

A good well trained assistant is essential in stage performances as inevitably some link may be forgotten. In such a case he moves on fast then later goes back to invite people to call any object rather than the number. As soon as the performer hears the forgotten one he’s off again.

While I could do 40 in my heyday 20 is generally more than enough allowing for the limited attention span of the average human. Tony Corinda ran a magic studio in Soho in the 50s and 60s. The system I use is taken from one of 13 very informative booklets in his Thirteen Steps to Mentalism series now well out of print and collectors’ items.

Things work best if the user has the ability to envisage, i.e. get mental images of items in his own mind. Seems many people do not have this ability, but it can be de­ve­loped. Using envisagement, mental pictures of each number object couplet may easily be saved to memory.

Try this exercise. In a quite place, seated comfortably, close your eyes and try to see the sitting room of your house in your mind. If you can do this mentally, wander around looking at familiar objects, then move to another room, and so on. Now go to a favourite location: beach, fishing spot, meeting room, and travel around it. Mate, you are well on your way!

If you find this impossible to do all is not lost. Close your eyes and try envisaging a pure white disk. This may take several attempts, but once you have it set it spinning slowly, then faster. Change disk colour to red, blue, yellow, back to white. Once you can do this move on to rooms and landscapes you know. Finally I shall initiate you into the method I use. You can do it!


The System

Memorise the following items as given or vary to others which rhyme appropriately and are better from your perspective. Once memorised stick to what you’ve got. And away we go

    1. is a GUN
    2. is a SHOE
    3. is a FLEA
    4. is a SAW
    5. is a HIVE
    6. is a TRICK
    8. is a GATE
    9. is OUT OF LINE
    10. is a PEN
    12. is a SHELF
    13. is SKIRTING
    14. is COURTING
    15. is LIFTING
    16. is SWEET SIXTEEN
    17. CAN’T BE SEEN
    18. is BAITING
    19. is PINING
    20. is SENTRY
    21. is IN THE SUN
    22. is PAINTED BLUE
    23. is OUT AT SEA
    24. is ON THE SHORE
    25. is BURIED ALIVE
    26. is ON TWO STICKS
    28. is ALWAYS LATE
    29. is ON THE LINE
    30. is DIRTY.

So there you have 30 to play with!

    1. eg GUN and you are given sausage. Shoot the sausage. Once linked with picture forget it.
    2. Squeeze whatever it is into a small SHOE.
    3. A large FLEA bites the object.
    4. SAW the thing in half.
    5. Bees or wasps from the HIVE crawl all over it stinging like hell.
    6. Envisage the object being pulled out of a TRICK top hat.
    7. Object ascends to HEAVEN held by two ridiculous angels.
    8. Sit the thing on a GATE.
    9. Envisage two pillars with your object between them but OUT OF LINE.
    10. Write rude words all over it with your PEN.
    11. Take delivery of a large parcel with your object inside COMES FROM DEVON.
      (27 Same in reverse)
    12. Stick it on a SHELF.
    13. Hang it from the SKIRTING.
    14. Envisage two lovers COURTING your object comes between them when they kiss.
    15. You are LIFTING the object.
    16. SWEET SIXTEEN pour honey or treacle all over it.
    17. Envisage looking all over for this lost object which CAN’T BE SEEN.
    18. You are BAITING the object by sticking a hook through it.
    19. My God! You loved that object, you miss it, you are PINING from it.
    20. A SENTRY stands on guard in full Guards’ uniform with bearskin. Impale the object on his bayonet. (My best was onstage in the 1950,s when Liz had brought forth yet again and someone gave me “The Royal Baby”).

The rest? That’s your problem …

Now try to use it, the more ridiculous the association the better. I’ll start you with 20 you can do the rest.

Start off with 10 numbers on a pad and get your wife or trusted friend to try it out with you. Once written down get the querent to call any number and you’re away. Finally run in one of the complete sequences given above. Backwards is a good start. Once confident go on to … 20, then 30 but generally stick to 20 for reasons given.

Have fun and astonish your friends!


    1. Yates, Francis, The Art of Memory, London: Routledge & Paul, 1966.
    2. Cooper, Robert D.L., Cracking the Freemasons’ Code, London: Rider, 2006
    3. Faulks, Phillipa & Robert D.L. Cooper, The Masonic Magician, Watkins Publishing, 2008.


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