How I Improved My Memory by Playing Connect 4 Using My Mouth

I’ve always been intrigued by people who seem to be blessed with an amazing memory. My aunt seems to have an unlimited memory for people’s birthdays and phone numbers. A former colleague at Villanova was able to recall the names (and details) of students he taught 40 years ago.

And then there’s Joshua Foer.  Foer had written about the 2005 USA Memory Championship for Slate Magazine, and in the process discovered that mastering the sport required no innate gift for memory. In 2006, he returned – as a competitor– and won the whole thing. Foer wrote about his experience in the bestselling book Moonwalking with Einstein.

And now there’s Nelson Dellis, a four-time USA Memory champ. Along the way, Dellis also achieved Grand Master status, which at the time had the following requirements:

  • memorize 1,000 digits in under an hour
  • memorize the precise order of 10 shuffled decks of playing cards in under an hour
  • memorize the precise order of one shuffled deck in less than two minutes

(There was a change in memory titles in 2013; anyone who can achieve the three requirements noted above now has the title of International Master of Memory.)

Dellis recently shared one of his techniques on Boing Boing, and I thought I’d give it a try, and then share the results on my blog.

The technique is known as the Peg Method. The technique calls for you to use mental “pegs” (basically, other things you know on a pre-learned list) to “anchor” each item you want to memorize to.

A “pre-learned list” is any list of things you already know. For example, if you know the order of the planets from the sun (no, I do not, so skip that one), that would be a pre-learned list. Perhaps you know the order of the U.S. Presidents (another no; unfortunately I am not Macey Hensley). Fortunately, there are some easier ones. If you know the order of the alphabet, that’s a pre-learned list, and so are your body parts, listed from the top of your head down to your feet. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the last two pre-learned lists down pat.

Once you have your peg list ready and the list you want to memorize, the next step is to create a memorable image for the things you want to memorize and then anchor them, or imagine them interacting rather, to the things on the peg list. When it comes time to recall the list, you’ll hopefully have the fixed order of your peg list to keep the order of your memorized list.

Here is the specific example Dellis used. His goal was to memorize the 10 largest world countries by population:

  1. China
  2. India
  3. USA
  4. Indonesia
  5. Brazil
  6. Pakistan
  7. Nigeria
  8. Bangladesh
  9. Russia
  10. Japan

Dellis used body parts, from top of his head down to his feet as his peg list:

  1. Top of  head
  2. Ears
  3. Eyes
  4. Nose
  5. Mouth
  6. Chin
  7. Armpit
  8. Belly-button
  9. Knees
  10. Feet

And here are the memorable images he came up with for each country:

  1. China – Chopsticks
  2. India – Curry
  3. USA – Hamburger
  4. Indonesia – In Dough (IN-DOUGH-nesia; imagine pressing in some dough with the palm of your hand, like a baker)
  5. Brazil – Bra (BRA-zil)
  6. Pakistan – Pack of Cards (PACK-istan)
  7. Nigeria – Cheerios (Ni-CHEER-ia, close enough…)
  8. Bangladesh – BANG!
  9. Russia – Vodka Martini
  10. Japan – Pan (Ja-PAN)

and here is how he imagined those memorable images interacting with his peg list:

  1. Top of your head – Chopsticks are resting on the top of your head, drenched in soy sauce and wrapped in some remnants of noodles.
  2. Ears – Dripping out of your ears as a spicy curry sauce.
  3. Eyes – A hamburger patty is in place of your eye socket. Maybe a single tear of mayonnaise rolls down your cheek.
  4. Nose – Imagine pressing in some dough into your nose, with some of the dough seeping into your nostrils, plumes of flour jetting out of the side of your nostrils as well.
  5. Mouth – Like a magician pulling an endless mutli-colored flag out of his mouth, except it’s a sexy, lacy bra. Ooo la la!
  6. Chin – Resting on your chin is a full pack of cards. Maybe a Blackjack dealer is about to deal the cards straight from your chin!
  7. Armpit – Cheerios are flowing out of your armpits into a bowl for your consumption. It’s got that extra BO tang. Yum!
  8. Belly-button – From out of the deep crevasse of your belly-button shoots out a bullet like it’s a gun–BANG BANG!
  9. Knees – Your knees are two martini glasses filled with some seriously potent Russian vodka.
  10. Feet – Down on your feet is a burning hot pan cooking your dinner. Your feet, as a result, are covered in nasty blisters.

So I decided to try this approach, but I didn’t want to memorize the same exact list as Dellis used, so I am going to try and memorize the 10 smallest U.S. states by land size, and use a modified version of Dellis’s peg list.

So here’s my peg list:

  1. eyes
  2. nose
  3. mouth
  4. neck
  5. shoulders
  6. chest
  7. belly
  8. butt
  9. legs
  10. feet

and here are the 10 smallest states by land size, from smallest to biggest:

  1. Rhode Island
  2. Delaware
  3. Connecticut
  4. Hawaii
  5. New Jersey
  6. Massachusetts
  7. New Hampshire
  8. Vermont
  9. Maryland
  10. West Virginia

and here are the memorable images I came up with for each state:

  1. Rhode Island – island (how’s that for being creative!)
  2. Delaware – deli
  3. Connecticut – Connect 4
  4. Hawaii – lei
  5. New Jersey – devil (hockey team)
  6. Massachusetts  – church (Mass…)
  7. New Hampshire – hamster
  8. Vermont – monty python
  9. Maryland – mother mary
  10. West Virginia – almost heaven (cue John Denver)

The next part seems to be the hardest part. I need to take these memorable images and imagine them interacting with each of the body parts from my peg list.

So here is what I came up with:

  1. eyes – Even with my eyes closed, I can picture my retirement living on an island.
  2. nose – Whenever I walk into a deli, my nose is overwhelmed with the disgusting smell of cheese.
  3. mouth – After a few beers, we decide to play Connect 4 using only our mouth. Who knows why…
  4. neck – You know you are in full relaxation mode when you are wearing lei around your neck.
  5. shoulders – I’ve got an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other; which one do I listen to for advice?
  6. chest – Maybe I should go to church when I’ve got to get something off my chest.
  7. belly – I’m glad I’m a vegan; I can’t imagine having a hamster in my belly.
  8. butt – I hope I’m never the butt of one of Monty Python’s jokes.
  9. legs – Mother Mary is standing right in front of me, on her own two legs.
  10. feet – I’ve heard that getting your feet rubbed is almost heaven.

Now, according to Dellis, I should close my eyes and try to visualize the pathway through your body from eyes to feet, recalling the images and states as I go.

How did it work. I just tried, and it seemed pretty easy. I’m going to leave this blog for a couple of hours and come back and see if it still works. I’ll be back – don’t leave…

I’m back.

It worked, flawlessly. I now know the 10 smallest states by land mass, in order from smallest to biggest. Not sure what good that will do me, but you never know.

Maybe now I’m ready to recite the Presidents, in order. I know the first one and the current one, so that’s a start.

2 thoughts on “How I Improved My Memory by Playing Connect 4 Using My Mouth

  1. Hi Jim,

    I found the most fantastic memory aid is my massive Website that I maintain daily. I mostly search my own Website using Google and constantly find postings that I’d long forgotten. Those postings can then be quoted in current debates. Sometimes my media quotations may be among the only quotations available from sites that are long gone. For example, my quotations from the Grumpy Old Accountants Blog may be the only available source for quotations from Professors Ketz and Catanach. who gave me permission for those quotations.

    I will spend most of my professional time improving my Website and zero time playing Connect 4.



    1. Hi Bob. Your web site will most certainly be part of your wonderful legacy. I too have searched your site for long lost references and found it quite helpful. I am finding the same thing with my blog; now that I’ve written nearly 1400 daily posts, I’ll go back and read some things I had completely forgotten about. Like you, I hope to maintain my web site long into retirement. But I may throw in a few games of Connect 4 along the way, but using my hands.


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