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How do YOU remember your PIN ?

Turning numbers into memorable images

For several decades, the Guardian newspaper had a prominent advertisement in the bottom corner of the front page. “You CAN Remember” was the headline, with claims that a leading expert had discovered a way to help you improve your memory and hence succeed in life. An important principle of the so-called Major system that  Dr Bruno Furst (the 'leading expert') promoted was that words and images are easier to remember than numbers. So the secret for remembering numbers (for example dates in history or Person ID numbers, aka PINs) was to turn those dry numbers into an image.The basic code (every new memory guru comes up with variants) was as follows.

Digit                  Letter

0            z  (for zero)
1            t  (T has one downstroke)
2            n  (n has two downstrokes)
3            m  (m has three downstrokes)
4            r  (r is the fourth letter of four)
5            l  (L is Roman 50, so it’s sort of linked)
6            j  (J is a bit like 6)
7            k  (k is like two 7s stuck together)
8            f  (a cursive f looks a bit like 8)
9            p  (p is a backwards 9)*


The full system then adds in all the other consonants that are similar sounds to those above, so for example 1 can be either t OR d (because d and t use the same tongue formation).

Now you might think this all seems a bit tenuous. And you might also think it’s a real faff to remember all this stuff just so you can remember other things. This is all true. But as a teenager I was really taken with Dr Bruno Furst's Major System (we had a copy of the course at home), and it has stuck with me ever since.

To memorise a padlock number like 857, first turn it into letters - F-L-K - then insert vowels (which are ignored in the system) to make a word - in this case FLaK will do. Picture your padlock flying through the air surrounded by FLaK. And Bingo, later on when trying to recall the number, an image of FLaK pops back, which you convert to 857. Well it does if your mind works like mine, anyway.

To this day when entering my PIN to get cash I mumble the word ‘FLoDN’ to recall my number. It's particularly handy on those days when I can’t remember if my number is 8512 or 8152. (OK I’m lying, I don’t say Flodden, my number isn't 8512, but you get the point.)

My memory tricks used to be a great hit at parties, using this method to memorise telephone numbers. Actually that’s a lie too. But I do remember (I'm cringing as I write this) that I once - over 30 years ago - boasted to a girl at a party that I could memorise her number with a phrase, and then call her the next day. Remarkably, she gave me her number, and I called her the next day. The story fizzles out rapidly from that point.

Except for one thing. I can still remember the phrase. It was: “CoMe SHow Me No MaN.” Which translates to 736 3232. And you know what. Whoever she was, I can’t remember her name.


There’s a chapter about this method in my kids’ book ‘How To Remember Almost Everything Ever’ (there is a new 2015 edition). So if you're looking for a stocking filler...


* The Major system had keywords that you could use to remember shopping lists. the numbers 1 to 9 in the list were represented by the words: Tea, Noah, May, Ray, Law, Jaw, Key, Fee, Pea.