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How to Remember Your Passwords

A spy might have a range of passwords and code phrases she needs to remember in order to decode messages or connect with other agents. If you write down an important clue, the writing might get discovered, which could get incriminating for you. The safest method is to keep all those details in your brain.

But how do you keep track of so many words and phrases without forgetting them?

How we remember things is a question that scientists have been studying for many years. What causes something to shift from our Short Term Memory (which could hold onto information for only 20 seconds or less) to our Long Term Memory, where we can retain the information for much longer? The Working Memory Model suggests that our brains approach information differently based on whether we are speaking and hearing it or whether we are picturing it visually.

Henry Herdsen, a professor at Cambridge University in the 17th century, developed a “Peg” system of memory to help remember lists of items. In it, each number from 1 to 10 is associated with a "peg word" that rhymes with that number:

1 is a Bun
2 is a Shoe
3 is a Tree
4 is a Door
5 is a Hive
6 is Sticks
7 is Heaven
8 is a Gate
9 is a Mine
10 is a Hen

To remember things you create an image of the thing you want to remember along with the "peg word" that goes with that number in the list. The stranger, sillier, or more unusual the image is that you create, the easier the item will be to remember. So if my item number 4 was "penguin" I would try to create a picture of penguins and a door (the word for 4) in some strange way. Maybe the door is made out of penguins, maybe every time you ring the doorbell a penguin answers, maybe there’s a giant penguin with a door in its stomach leading to a vast penguin ballroom.

Try making a list of 10 items then see if you can remember them by making pictures that go with the peg words. With a bit of practice, you will find that you can remember your list of words backwards and forwards and tell people what word is at each number and what number is at each word.

The brain is an amazing thing. Now if I could just remember where I left my car keys (we chickens like to drive a coupe).

Until next week...this is Agent Cluckminster Fuller signing off.

Did you miss a clue? Read last week's transmission to find out.