Case Study: List of the 50 U.S. States

Since there are 50 States, I knew I would need to use a route that had at least 50 landmarks I could easily recall. Therefore, a short walk around my living room, though very familiar, probably would not cut it. I decided to try a mental walk through the first floor at my work.

Here is what I did specifically:

  1. On a blank sheet of paper, I wrote the numbers 1 through 50.
  2. Starting with the front steps of my company's building, I then wrote the prominent features of the first floor down in order. I visualized in my mind walking up the front stairs of the building, through the front glass entrance, past the small guest seating area, past the reception desk, across the lobby, and so on. I did not microanalyze the scene. There was no need to count the number of chairs in the guest waiting area for example - just calling the guest area as a single landmark was quite sufficient. Even though this is a relatively small building, I was able to reach the 50th landmark after only mentally walking through about half of the first floor.

    Just so this is clear, let me give you a few more of the landmarks I mentally noted in addition to those above: a small table and welcome sign that is always in the lobby; a small, marble retaining wall that separates the lobby from the hallway to the stairs; the lower landing of the stairs; a side exit door by the stairs; a nearby door leading to the snack room; the copy machine just inside the snack room door; the metal employee mailbox rack next to the copier, the vending machine, and so on.

    The important thing is to make sure the landmarks fall in the exact sequence that you would see them by doing a normal walk-through of the area. The sequence is what will allow you to recall the exact order of your list later.

    This took a long time to explain in words, but I was able to figure out and write down the 50 landmarks in only about 5 or 6 minutes. The reason I could do it so quickly is that I selected a route I was already extremely familiar with (you should do that too).

  3. On a second piece of paper, I again wrote the numbers 1 through 50. In my 2005 Time Almanac, I found a list of the 50 States listed alphabetically. I copied these onto my piece of paper, in order.
  4. To peg the states to the landmarks in my walk-through, I had to think of a vivid image for each state. You can't just peg a "name" (like Nebraska) to the image of a table in a lobby; it's very difficult to visualize "text" and remember it.

    So on my paper I thought of one thing that reminded me of each state ("corn" for Nebraska, for example). Even though 50 might sound like a lot, actually it was easy because, being a citizen of the U.S, I already have some preconcieved ideas about most states. For the others, I just came up with something that sounds like the name.

    Here are some more examples: Alabama - banjo ("I've come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee..."); Alaska - polar bear; Arizona - meteor crater (there is a big one there that I think is cool); Arkansas - ark (Ark-ansas, "ark" as in Noah's); California - gold bars (as in the Gold Rush); Colorado - Coors beer cans; Connecticut - a chain ("Connect-icut"); and so on.

    The more vivid and appropriate you pick your images, the easier it will be later to remember later as you take the mental walk-through of your route. Make sure to pick nouns (e.g., gold bar). Don't pick adjectives ("red", "heavy", and so on) or other parts of speech. Nouns are obviously a lot easier to visualize.

  5. Tying it all together. At this point I had a list of 50 easy-to-visualize and sequential landmarks on my company's first floor. I also had a list of the 50 states in alphabetical order, with an easy-to-remember word next to each state.

    So on an index card, I next wrote the landmark locations in order, then next to each wrote a corresponding state item. So it started like this: 1) Front Steps - Banjo; 2) glass entryway - Polar Bear; 3) Guest Waiting Area - Meteor Crater; 4) Reception Desk - Ark; 5) Lobby Floor - Gold Bars; and on through the 50 states.

It's very long-winded to explain that all out as I did. But really it only took me about 20 mintutes to go from nothing to having the alphabetical list of the 50 States locked - and I mean really locked - in memory.

I would expect that most times you will not need to memorize lists as long as 50 items. An extreme example is great for illustration purposes though. Because if I with my average memory can slam dunk a 50-item list in 20 minutes, think how easy it would be to memorize a list of just 10 items. But try memorizing those 10 items by repetition only - no way you'll easily remember them the next day or the next week. But peg the items to a route you know well (the Loci Method) - and it will be harder to forget the list than remember it!

You don't have to use the same route over and over. In fact, if you have to memorize a lot of information at the same time (lots of facts from different classes you are taking concurrently, for example), it is probably better to use different routes. The great thing is that everyone has a bunch of these routes - you just have to stop and think about it. Here are all the routes I thought of in about 1 minute of brainstorming:

  1. My work commute.
  2. The houses on my cul-de-sac.
  3. The businesses surrounding the mall.
  4. A walk-through of my house.
  5. A detailed walk-through of my study.
  6. A walk-through of the exercise machines at my gym.
  7. The planets of the solar system.
  8. The cubicles on my row at work.
  9. The floors of my company's building.
  10. The main cities I pass along the freeway between my hometown and the next state.
  11. A walk-through of my company's campus.
  12. A walk-through of my college campus (it's been years since I've been there, but I still remember it well).
  13. Visual walk-through of the interior of my car.
  14. A walk through my back yard.
  15. A walk through the produce section of my supermarket.
  16. A walk through of my most recent apartment.
  17. A walk through of the apartment before that.
  18. A walk through of the apartment before that.
  19. A walk through of my grandparent's house.

From this quick brainstorm, I think you can see that the number of routes stored in your brain is probably vast. Certainly enough available that you will not often be forced to reuse one.

Having said that, you can designate certain routes as "chalkboard" type routes that get reused for the same purpose. A great example would be for grocery lists. Let's say I designate the walk-through of my grandparents house as my grocery list route. Each time I complete a shopping trip, I know to go ahead and forget those items, since for the next trip the items will be different. However, the landmarks will stay the same each time and so will be easy to recall. I simply come up with different peg images to assign to the landmarks.

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Memorizing the 50 states is not as hard as you may think.

The Loci Method is certainly one of the most powerful memorization techniques there is. Invest in the few minutes of thinking about routes and coming up with pegs, and you will amaze everyone around you. When I recited the list of states today, everyone thought that meant I was some kind of genius. No! - No! - No! There is nothing particularly special about my brain. After all, I'm just an 89 percenter. When it comes to memorization, you can do it too!

Published: 10/11/2008
Last Updated: 06/11/2020

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