If you want to memorize state capitals, make use of this powerful truth: Your brain recalls images easier than words.
In ancient times, mental image techniques were used to memorize all kinds of material, from speeches to poetry. These techniques were in common use for hundreds of years.
I'll show you below how to use one of these powerful techniques to memorize the state capitals of the United States.
Learn and use this fun image technique, and you will be able to recall the names of the state capitals easily. You won't get confused by which cities go with which states, and you won't be distracted by the names of other well-known cities in the state.
As mentioned above, your brain remembers images more easily than abstract words. Take a moment to view in your mind an image of the living room in your house. I'm sure you can visualize where each chair, table, lamp, and other piece of furniture is placed. You can see in your mind details about them, too, such as their color, material, and so on. And this is effortless!
I provide examples below. You'll see, this technique is fun and very effective!
To take advantage of this to memorize state capitals, we need to create images that represent each of the capital cities and each of the states. We will then tightly link these images together. This powerful memorization technique is known by various names, but I refer to it as Visualization & Association.
Since these images will be new to you (unlike the mental image of your living room), we need to make the images very memorable.
The ancients knew well that plain, uninteresting images are forgettable. Images used for memorization therefore need to be funny, exaggerated, or strange so they stick in your mind. A book called the Rhetoric Ad Herennium, published in 90 B.C., explains the need for unusual images this way:
When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvellous. But if we see something exceptionally base, dishonourable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember a long time...
Ordinary things easily slip from the memory while the striking and novel stay longer in the mind.
You should have a lot of fun thinking up the images that will help you memorize state capitals, because these mental pictures need to be as weird as possible!
Now, it is easy to imagine a lamp or a chair. Those are physical objects. But the names of the states and their capitals are not concrete objects, they are abstract names. How can we convert abstract names to images?
The secret is to imagine objects, places, and actions that represent the sound of the name. This is not tricky. Just get close, and your brain will do the rest. The examples below show how to use this fact to memorize state capitals. You can then use the same trick to memorize almost anything else you need to remember.
It's time for a few examples that show exactly how to create the images you need to memorize state capitals.
1. Atlanta, Georgia. To memorize that Atlanta is the capital of Georgia, and to memorize it so well that there is no possibility of thinking some other city is the capital of that state, we first need to create a mental image for "Atlanta" and then create a mental image for "Georgia".
Think of the sound of the word Atlanta. Say the word slowly, out loud. At...lan...ta. We need to convert those syllables, those sounds, into a memorable image.
To me, Atlanta sounds a bit like the phrase, "ant land on". (Remember, you just need to get close. What you are doing here is creating a mental hook, the image, to retrieve information from your memory.) To remember "ant land on", I'll think of a giant ant wearing a parachute.
Now for the word Georgia. To me, Georgia sounds very much like the name "George". That name makes me think of either Curious George (the cartoon monkey) or George Washington, one of the Founding Fathers of America. I'll use George Washington in my image. It's easy to visualize George's face on the one dollar bill.
It's time to link the capital with the state. Because we want to remember that Atlanta is the capital of Georgia and not some other state, we need to link our mental image for Atlanta to our mental image for Georgia.
To do this, I simply imagine George Washington on the dollar bill looking up in horror as a giant ant wearing a parachute falls from the sky and lands on his bald head. Try to imagine that scene in your mind (see picture at left).
To lock this image firmly in your mind, simply review it (think of it mentally) a few times. It is such an odd image that it should readily stick in your memory.
I hope you now understand the power of this technque. As long as you create a strong, clear image such as the one above in your mind, there is no way you can forget the capital of the state of Georgia.
Seeing the giant ant with the parachute in your mind, there is no possibility that you will accidentally think the capital of Georgia is Macon, Savannah, or any other city. "Ant Land On" equals Atlanta, and only Atlanta, and "George" equals Georgia and no other state.
Easy, right? Let's continue with more examples that illustrate how to use memory images to memorize state capitals.
Note: Some states have a North/South version such as North Carolina and South Carolina. To avoid mixing up the capitals of these states, remember that polar bears live near the North Pole while penguins live near the South Pole. Include a polar bear in your "North state" mental images and a penguin in your "South state" images to keep them straight.
2. Little Rock, Arkansas. The next example is Little Rock, Arkansas. For "Little Rock", I'll think of little rocks, perhaps a bunch of them raining down from the sky. The sound of "Arkansas" (pronounced ark-an-saw), reminds me of "ark + saw". The only ark I can think of is Noah's ark from the Old Testament, so I'll use that.
To create the link, I'll imagine a scene where Noah is on his ark, along with the animals two-by-two as in the Bible story. His ark is floating on the floodwaters, but this time instead of raindrops coming down, it's a rainstorm of colorful little rocks!
Of course, rocks are a major problem, so Noah is trying to knock the rocks away with a giant saw that he has nearby. Here's an illustration representing that scene:
"Little Rocks" + "Ark & Saw" = Little Rock, Arkansas
I am not an artist, unfortunately, so that drawing is a bit cartoonish. No matter, you can still think of the same images as I've used here, but make them clear in your own mind by thinking of Noah's ark, the rocks, the saw, and the other details the way that you would envision them. You will have the most success using the image technique to memorize state capitals if you create your own images anyway.
With the above scene in mind, it would be quite impossible to forget that Little Rock is the capital of Arkansas. Think about it. Is there any chance I would now say that Fort Smith, Fulton, or some other city was Arkansas' capital? The little falling rocks in the image can only mean the city of Little Rock, and Noah's ark and the saw he is using can only mean the state of Arkansas and no other state.
3. Frankfort, Kentucky. You should create mental images that are simple enough to remember but that have enough "strangeness" and detail that you will recall the city and state names without much effort. As our last example in this discussion of how to memorize state capitals, let's try Frankfort, Kentucky.
To me, "Frankfort" sounds a bit like "frank" + "fork". For frank, you could imagine someone you know named Frank, but frank is also another name for "hot dog", so I'll use that. The fork can be represented by a metal fork (the eating utensil).
The name "Kentucky" sounds to me like "king tuck e". I'll drop the "e" and go with "king tuck". To tie the capital and state names together, I clearly picture a king (with crown, cape, etc.) who is using a giant fork to stuff (tuck) hot dogs down his pants!
I'm not going to provide a drawing for that one. Now that you understand how this technique works, try and imagine that scene very clearly in your own mind.
Once again, it should be obvious there is no way you will forget that Frankfort is the capital of Kentucky.
As long as you practice calling this image to mind a few times to set it in memory, there is no possibility that you will think that Louisville or any other city is the capital of Kentucky. "Frank + fork" can only be Frankfort, and "king + tuck" can only mean Kentucky and no other state.
Now, I could go through the entire list of states capitals and think of image scenes for you. However, as the author of the Ad Herennium observed 2,000 years ago, the most effective memory images are the ones you create for yourself.
That's because I cannot know what feelings, thoughts, knowledge, or experiences any given word evokes in your mind. Only you can know that. Further, the act of inventing your own images forces you to concentrate intently on the information. Attention, in itself, is one of the keys to memory.
Last Updated: 06/11/2020
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