Imagine that you have the mnemonics to translate numbers to letters drilled into your memory. Now let's try to memorize the first seven digits of pi (seven digits, like a phone number). The first seven digits are 3.141592.
That translates into:
We can make a set of words using these letters (vowels don't translate into numbers and can be used freely). How about: "MeTeoR TuF PiN". If you like disaster movies, imagine that Bruce Willis is sent into space to keep a giant meteor from hitting the Earth. As they near the dreadful object, one of the crew asks how he will stop it. Bruce, a man of few words, holds up a titanium pin about four feet long and says, "Tough pin." The plan is to pin the thing onto the roof of the sky just like the kid's game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. You can even put a kid's party hat on Bruce in his spacesuit to make it more absurd.
What if, when you practice remembering this little movie, you mess up and keep thinking of "titanium pin" or "large pin" instead of "tuf pin"? Just add more detail. Bruce can help you. Imagine that Bruce Willis, in his spacesuit and party hat, slowly turns the head of the pin to face the camera as it zooms in for a close-up. On the head of the pin in red letters is the trademark, "TuF". Thanks, Bruce.
Crazy, isn't it? It's like a dream sequence that doesn't make much sense. If we are watching a movie with a science fiction premise, why is there a roof to the sky? If they can afford Bruce Willis, can't they get a better scriptwriter? It doesn't matter. Just try to forget the image of the giant meteor behind Bruce Willis with his tough pin. You can't.
It helps me to literally make an image. I make collage pictures in Photoshop with sampled images, but you can draw pictures or paste together collages from pictures cut out of magazines. Here is a collage for MeTeoR TuF PiN.
The more ridiculous and nonsensical the images are, the easier they are to remember. People who make TV commercials understand this. What do talking frogs have to do with beer? I'll bet you know which brand I mean, though.
Now imagine that you have a list of these little movies that has to be recalled in order. The Romans had a technique for this to assist orators (paper was scarce and expensive and there were no teleprompters). The mnemonic technique is called the method of loci. Imagine that you are following a familiar route, entering your house or apartment, for example. The first thing that you do is to check the mailbox. What's this? It's an ad for some really dumb disaster movie with Bruce Willis. It's hard to imagine what they were thinking - he's got a kid's party hat on besides a spacesuit! That gives us MeTeoR TuF PiN or 3.141592. Next, you reach for the doorknob. What's that on the doorknob? It's the next mnemonic device on your list. This goes on as you toss your keys on the table by the door, hang your coat in the closet, and so on.
You might see how this works, and be able to do this yourself with some practice, but still fail to understand how it is possible for Dr. Wilson to remember 5,200 digits of pi. It is only a matter of scale. Can you toss a ball two feet in the air and catch it? Probably. Can you juggle seven balls while moving in time to music in front of 2,000 people? Well, that's why you are willing to buy a ticket to the circus, isn't it?
Watching acts of tremendous skill executed smartly and with confidence inspires us. If the performer that you are watching is willing to devote hundreds of hours of practice to learn to do something that is essentially meaningless, perhaps you can make some effort to do the things that are important to you!
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step -- Lao Tze.
For more on mnemonics, try these links:
Famous Mnemonists on this site.
Learning to Learn, Mnemonics
Memory Improvement Course Links
The Memory Page
010 Memorizer: software to train you to memorize numbers
2Know: free software to translate numbers to words; includes 149,000-word phonetic dictionary