A Method for Memorizing Short Lists

This mnemonic device is useful for memorizing lists of 10 or fewer things. Although best for lists of nouns (e.g. a short grocery list), with a little creativity it can be used to memorize lists comprising any sort of words.

First, you'll have to memorize a painless list of ten stupid rhymes. Bear with me, this is sort of cool.

The groundwork

  • One is a bun
  • Two is a shoe
  • Three is a tree
  • Four is a door
  • Five is a hive
  • Six is a stick
  • Seven is heaven
  • Eight is a gate
  • Nine is a line
  • Ten is a hen

It might be helpful to repeat this list a few times in sing-song fashion. Each rhyme is pretty much the rhyme that comes first to mind for each number, so after a minute or two you should have this list pat.


Now that you know the list of rhymes, here's how this method works. Let's consider a list of ten grocery store-ish items you want to remember.

  • milk
  • tin foil
  • tuna
  • cucumber
  • almonds
  • dish detergent
  • whiskey
  • laxatives
  • diapers
  • aspirin

For each item in the list you want to memorize, you will have to come up with a mental picture involving the rhyming counterpart for the item's ordinal place on the list (bun, shoe, tree, etc.) with the item itself (milk, tin foil, tuna, etc.). The trick is, make each mental picture as graphic and lewd as possible. Spend no more than 15 seconds generating each image.

Encoding through graphic, juvenile mental pictures

Back to the grocery store:

  • One: milk. You have to link milk (first on your list) and bun (rhymes with one). Maybe visualize a lactating breast soaking the bun. Sorry. The more graphic the better. Look at the soggy, milky bun. Open wide and shove the whole thing in your mouth, sicko.
  • Two: tin foil and shoe. Picture a leg. Hacksaw through the ankle bone and remove the bloody, clad foot. The shoe, a shiny saddle shoe, is still on the bloody stump. Blood's getting all over the place, genius! Wrap the monstrosity in tin foil and place the wrapped, dismembered, shiny package of shoed foot snugly in your trousers. Crinkly!
  • Three: tuna and tree. Picture a huge, 3-foot long yellow-fin tuna. It's slimy in your hands, and smells putrescent under the hot, noon sun. Place the fish vertically on the trunk of an enormous elm tree. Drive a railroad spike through the eye of the tuna, affixing it to the tree trunk. See its grey, piscine brain ooze all over the bark.
  • Four: cucumber and door. Picture a group of 3-inch tall sprites click-clacking in small wood clogs across a linoleum floor. Picture a refrigerator door ajar behind them, and a cucumber being borne on the sprites' backs in the fashion of ants carrying some improbably heavy wasp. One sprite is laggard and you catch him with the slamming refrigerator door, squishing the tiny homunculus who explodes into flames.
  • Five: almonds and hive. Grab the beehive from a dark hole in the brick wall. Feel the stings on your hand stabbing like tiny knives. Squeeze the honey from the hive onto a pile of roasted almonds. Look at the glistening pile. Place one sticky, honey-coated almond in each nostril, and scream.
  • Six: stick and dish detergent. Picture a tub of boiling water. Pour the radioactive-blue detergent into the steaming water. Stir the water with a long, wooden stick. Watch the foam rise. Place the squeeky-clean stick up your own ass.
  • Seven: whiskey and heaven. This is intuitive, but making a mental picture is still advised. Picture St. Peter with the robe, beard, gate and huge book. In his left hand he weilds a fifth of Jack, and in a fit of drunken pique he mistakenly damns Billy Graham. Or was it a mistake after all?
  • Eight: laxatives and gate. You see a huge, muscular Doberman galloping up to the bars of a gate in front of you. He is foaming at the mouth. When he gets to the gate, he turns around and projectile poops through the gate all over your white t-shirt. You've also shat your trousers in terror and disgust.
  • Nine: diapers and line. A clothes line in your backyard features sheets and shifts. They are flapping in the summer breeze coming from the adjacent ocean. There is a foul smell darkening the nostalgia-inducing salty air, however, and you identify the culprit: still-soiled diapers befoul the far end of your clothes line and ruin the idyll.
  • Ten: aspirin and a hen. You've chopped the head off of a hen. Its neck gushes forth burgundy volcanic plumes of hot blood, and it is indeed running around like itself. You laugh raucously about the irony. You fed it aspirin earlier for the headache it vociferously complained about, and now its head is gone! Silly you, you forgot it was slaughtering Sunday!

All right. I apologize about the nastiness and scatological inanity of the mental pictures. The only important thing to remember is the bloodier and nastier, the more readily you'll recall the list. Now for the recall test...

Now remember the list, Grandpa!

What was the fourth element of your list?

Four, door.... Hopefully the sprites spiriting away a cucumber came to mind, and the exploding laggard caught in the refrigerator door.

How about the seventh?

Seven, heaven.... Do you see St. Peter? Do you see the whiskey in his besotted, berobed hand? That drunk-ass, he's damning an evangelist!

Finally, how about the tenth?

Ten, hen.... Do you see the beheaded hen? Remember the irony of medicating the same head that is now leaking fluids on the gravelly ground? Waste of aspirin!

Anyway, you can try to recall the rest of the elements yourself and rate the merit of this method accordingly. This technique is good for lists, especially if the order of the list is important (ranked by priority, e.g.). Although those of you with decent memorization skillz might be able to memorize a list of ten things with a few minutes of rehearsal, or at least be able to differentiate the elements that were on the list from those that weren't, this method is faster, easier, and allows you to recall the exact order of the list backwards and forwards. As you practice a few times with the technique, concocting sufficiently graphic and memorable images gets easier and more efficacious. Plus, you can remember the list for days even if you don't think about it except during recall. This is one of the few useful nuggets of knowledge I gleaned from an undergraduate major in psychology, and I hope you find it useful as well.

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