Memory System Part 4: Symbolic Systems

In the earlier parts of this series I have discussed the possible modern applications of ancient memory techniques. I mentioned that not everyone was convinced of the merits of some of the key tenants of the proposed system, chiefly its reliance on adding imagined images to what needs to be learned - specifically to create images for abstract ideas. Probably most important for our modern experience of learning would be the distaste of this approach by the Puritian architects of our education systems, for instance Erasmus. I myself have some reservations about the utility of transforming ideas into images, especially if it is done in an arbitrary way.

However, I think we also have a rich and long history of using specific images and symbols to represent abstract ideas and I believe that some of these can be used as memory aids; giving us images for abstract concepts, which we then can combine with what we want to remember.

Years - Chinese Zodiac Signs

We often need to arrange information by time and the twelve Chinese Zodiac signs provide a possible way to associate images to specific years within a twelve year window. I believe they are particularily useful for organising knowledge that lies a few years in the past or future. They are less useful for aiding as images for historical dates, especially if these span many decades (they can be useful though for remembering a cluster of dates within the same decate).

The following provides the Chinese Zodiac signs for the a twelve year window, starting in 2020.

1 - 2020Rat
2 - 2021Ox
3 - 2022Tiger
4 - 2023Rabbit
5 - 2024Dragon
6 - 2025Snake
7 - 2026Horse
8 - 2027Goat
9 - 2029Monkey
10 - 2030Rooster
11 - 2031Dog
12 - 2032Pig

Chinese Zodica Signs

Coin with Chinese Zodiac Signs

Coin with Chinese Zodiac Signs (YAGO_MEDIA)

Months - Western Astrological Signs

The signs of the western astrological calendar align roughly to the 12 months of the year. See the following table for an approximate mapping:

Janurary♑︎ Goat, Capricorn
February♒︎ Water Bearer, Aquarious,
March♓︎ Fish, Pisces
April♈︎ Ram, Aries
May♉︎ Bullm Taurus
June♊︎ Twins, Gemini
July♋︎ Crab, Cancer
August♌︎ Lion, Leo
September♍︎ Maiden, Virgo
October♎︎ Scales, Libra
November♏︎ Scorpion, Scorpio
December♐︎ Archer / Centaur, Sagittarius

Western Astrological Signs

Astronomical Clock (Hermann)

Numbers - Shapes

A way to represent an ordered list or a specific number is to associate them with geometrical shapes of a matching number of points. The following list combines both two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes to arrive at easy to recognise shapes.

Number Geometrical Figure Image
0 / ♾ Circle Ring
1 Dot Ball
2 Line Rope
3 Triangle Street Sign
4 Square Cloth
5 Square Pyramid Pyramid
6 Triangular Prism Roof
7 Hexagonal Pyramid Diamond
8 Cube Box
9 House/ Elongated square pyramid House

Mappings of numbers to geometrical shapes with a matching number of points

Here some of the less commonly known shapes which have been referenced above:

Triangular Prism

Hexagonal Pyramid

Elongated Square Pyramid

Numbers - Consonants

It is generally difficult to remember any abstract concepts, and numbers are no exception to this rule for most of us. Dean Vaughn suggestes a system to convert numbers into words in the book How to Remember Anything. This system is built upon associating numbers with specific consonants or more specifically sounds. Find the mapping of numbers to sounds below.

Number Consonant/ Sound Examples
0 S, C, Z Sea, Celery, Zoo
1 T Tea
2 D, TH Doe, Theater
3 M Moon
4 R Rain
5 L Law
6 G, J, SH, CH Gem, Jam, Shoe, Chow
7 C, K, G, Q, CK Cat, Kite, Goat, Queen, Rock
8 V, F, PH Vase, Foe, Photo
9 B, P Bee, Pea

Code for converting numbers to consonants

Vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and half-vowels (h, w, y) are not associated with any numbers. Combining the consonants from the table above and voweles/ half-vowels then enables to construct words that represent certain numbers. For instance, find below examples for numbers from 0 to 20 based on Dean Vaughn with some modifications:

Number Word
0, 00 hose, seesaw
1, 01 hat, suit
2, 02 hen, sun
3, 03 ham, sum
4, 04 hair, sore
5, 05 hail, sail
6, 06 ash, stash
7, 07 hook, sock
8, 08 hoof, safe
9, 09 hoop, soap
10 toes
11 tot (young child)
12 tuna
13 team
14 tire
15 tail
16 teach
17 tick
18 teff
19 tap
20 nose

Code words for number from 0 to 20

I actually found it often very difficult to come up with words for specific numbers. So I think it is advisable to learn the code words for common numbers if you want to use this system.

Numbers - Rooms

The Method of Loci is an ancient technique to associate certain places in rooms with things we want to remember. Dean Vaughn, already referenced in the previous section, provides a more systemic application of this technique in How to Remember Anything, the numbered room systems - that can be used to remember numbered lists.

For this technique, one needs to imagine a room one is very familiar with and place objects into specific positions within that room.

Numbered room system by Dean Vaugh reproduced from How to Remember Anything

Uneven numbers are the corners of the room, and even numbers are the walls. 0 and 9 are ceiling and floor respectively. This system can be used to remember list with more than 10 items by combining multiple rooms.

Concepts - Greek Mythological Figures

There are a large number of Greek mythological figures and many of them represent specific concepts. Since abstract concepts are often difficult to remember, it can be useful to use the image of a mythological figure as adornment for abstract concepts. Find below a list of some figures and associated concepts.

Figure Represents Symbols
Aphrodite beauty, love, desire, and pleasure rose, shell, mirror, myrtle
Apollo music, arts, knowledge, healing, plague, prophecy, poetry, manly beauty, and archery lyre, laurel wreath, raven, swan
Ares courage, chaotic warfare, bloodshed, and violence sword, spear, shield, helmet
Artemis hunt, wilderness, animals bow, arrow, quiver, moon, deer, cypress
Athena reason, wisdom, intelligence, skill, peace, strategic warefare, and handicrafts owl, olive tree, snake, armour
Chaos nothingness from which all of existence sprang disorder
Charites / Graces charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, goodwill, and fertility three women: Aglaea ("Shining"), Euphrosyne ("Joy"), and Thalia ("Blooming")
Clio (Muse) history scrolls, books
Demeter agriculture, harvest, growth, and nourishment wheat, bread
Dionysus parties, festivals, madness, ecstasy, and theater grapevine, goat, ivy
Gaia personification of earth earth, nature
Hephaestus fire, metalworking, and crafts smith's hammeranvil
Hera women, marriage, childbirth, heirs, kings, and empires peacock feather
Hermes boundaries, travel, trade, communication, language, writing, cunning and thieves Talaria (winged shoes), Caduceus (staff), Petasos (winged helmet)
Hestia home, domesticity and chastity hearth and its fire
Nymphs specific place or landform beautiful maiden
Polyhymnia sacred poetry, sacred hymn, dance, eloquence, pantomime long cloak and veil, serious, pensive, medetative (holding finger to mouth)
Poseidon sea, rivers, floods, droughts, and earthquakes trident, fish
Melpomene (Muse) tradegy tragic mask, knife
Thalia (Muse) comedy, idyllic poetry comic mask
Thanatos death poppy, butterfly
Urania (Muse) astronomy, universal love, fact that imagination and the power of thought lift men's souls to heavenly heights globe, short staff, embroidered with stars, gazes to the heavens
Zeus law, order, and justice thunderbolt, eagle, oak

Greeks Gods and Mythological Figures and Related Concepts

Ancient Greek Gods by macrovector

Hestia by Freepik

Hephaestus by publicdomainvectors

Concepts - Symbols

Key here is I think to have a relatively limited set of symbols that can be applied often, depending on the subject matters you try to remember most often.

For instance, if you want to remember movie plots, you may come up with symbols for exposition, climax, red herring and deus ex machina.

However, there are some symbols that could be universally useful for many different domains of knowledge. I have listed some of those below:

Concept Symbol
Important Exclamation Mark
Risk / Danger Siren
Opportunity Cornucopia
Idea Light Bulb
Science / Scientific Flask

Symbols for Concteps

While I described a number of possible symbolic systems in this post, there are infinitly more possible. I think key is to find some that connect with you, since the stronger your connection to the symbol, the more powerful it becomes in helping you remember.

Categories: psychology