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Number Shapes

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

If you have a numbered list of items to remember, then a very straightforward system to use is Number Shapes. Like so many memory systems, it is simply a framework or scaffolding that you use to help make memorising easier. It is a series of 'hooks' where you can 'hang' the things you want to remember. It works best with a straightforward list of concrete nouns. There are other techniques that are more suitable for abstractions.

Stage 1 is to devise your own personal set of number shapes. You should go through the numbers 1-10 (or 0-9, if you prefer) and come up with a particular shape to represent each number. There is no right or wrong answer - it's what works for you - but the closer the resemblance between the shape and the number, the easier you will find the system to use. There's a grid you can use on our resources page to help you do that.

Wave in the shape of a three
What would your three look like?

For instance, I chose the following shapes:

1. A slice of bacon (upright, to look like a one)

2. A swan (going from the head, down the curve of its neck and over its back to make it look like a two)

3. A wave (the froth on the breaker looking like a three, as per a drawing by my daughter)

4. A flamingo (with legs crossed, making the shape of a four)

5. A juggler on a unicycle (it's the unicycle that makes the shape - the wheel being the curve of the five and the saddle the bar at the top)

6. A golf club (drawn to look like a six)

7. Flying geese (the 'v' of the geese turned so that it looks like the number seven)

8. A snowman (the round head on the round body to resemble an eight)

9. A snake curled in the shape of a nine.

10. A plate with bacon (1) and egg (like a zero), with the knife and fork representing a one and the plate zero to represent the number ten (so you actually get two representations of '10' in the same image.

Depending on how well you visualise things and your artistic skills, you can imagine a picture for each number, describe it textually, draw it yourself or simply look for a suitable shape on the internet. Again, there is no right or wrong answer - it's what works for you - although the act of drawing it (regardless of the quality of the drawing) might make it easier for you to remember. Certainly, the more you personalise it, the more it is 'relevant' to you, the more likely you will be to recall it at will.

Go through the images as often as you need, to make sure you are clear what shape represents which number. In the early stages, you can always keep the list of shapes (whether in written form, or with your drawings) beside you as an aide-mémoire. You'll soon find, though, that you can remember them easily, particularly if you have chosen shapes that are clear representations of the numbers.

Stage 2 is when you then use those shapes as 'hooks' to remember a list of things. You should come up with a little story, or an imaginative link between the hook and what you have to remember. The more active the connection between the word and the hook, the more likely you are to remember it. Personalising it, or having you present in the image, will also help a great deal. Having a list of number shapes that you have practised (and which thus has already gone into long term memory) will help you remember new items, which are still in your short term memory.


a) Suppose you were using your number shapes to remember a shopping list. If 'apples' were number 5 on your list you could have the juggler on the unicycle juggle some apples. Make the colours vibrant. Better still, make them a variety of apple that you particularly like (e.g. Pink Lady or Granny Smith). Have the juggler throw you an apple - bite into it so you can taste it. Alternatively, if apples were number 6 on your list, you could have someone using apples in place of golf balls. Each time they use the golf club (the number six), you hear a thwack or a squelchy noise as it hits the apple, smell the apple when the club hits it or duck as the apple comes hurtling towards you.

b) What if it was items you wanted to remember to pack for your holidays? The swan's wings could be the leaves of your passport, flapping open to show your photo, while the snowman could be wearing your swimming costume (while sipping from a tasty cocktail, of course!) and the snake slithers through a particular item of clothing you wanted (Note: remember you would memorise the items in order - these are just random examples).

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