Why can't I remember any numbers?
January 19, 2007 10:46 AM   Subscribe

How do I improve my memory for numbers?

I have recently taken a job that involves lots of random statistics, mostly things like total square footages, budgets, cost per foot, rate of return...that sort of thing. I've always been pretty bad at remembering any number (how old am I again?) that doesn't have a contextual relationship to something else. I can remember dates pretty well and have an enormous capacity for seemingly random non-numerical trivia. I just can't remember numbers. I have noticed that if I write something down, as opposed to just hearing it or reading it, I'm sometimes better at remembering the number since I can "see" it in my head as I'm thinking about it.

I've noticed that some people I work with can rattle off any of these types of numbers I've mentioned with what seems like relative ease ("yes, that project was planned for 90,000 square feet and had a total budget then of $2.5 million"). It's not required that I be able to do this but it would sure make me look a lot better if, in the middle of some meeting, when someone asks me "how much did they say the budget was for construction?" I could answer it with something other than "I'll have to get back to you on that."

Is it just innate talent that allows some people to be better at remembering numerical data? Is there any hope that I can get better at it?
posted by otherwordlyglow to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Mnemonics. Martin Gardner wrote a very good article about a system developed to assign letters to digits, and so form words. I can't seem to find it online.

Some people use the phone system. Go look at a phone keypad, notice the letters? It's not as good as gardner's system, but it might help a bit. Go find a copy of The Unexpect Hanging and other Mathematical Diversions.
posted by phrontist at 10:54 AM on January 19, 2007

I think it is partly from being exposed to the information. My guess is that after a while of reading and hearing about the projects you will be amazed at how much you remember if asked. I have an extremely hard time trying to memorize things, but just hearing it once and not thinking about it again until asked, I seem to pull it out of nowhere. I can remember seemingly random trades I made 20 years ago when asked, but if someone said to me, "tell me every trade you ever made", I would be lucky to remember yesterday's trades.

Just being in the job you are in, you will naturally start to remember.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:08 AM on January 19, 2007

I'm bad at this too. I once took a bunch of tests for short-term memory and scored worse than 95% of the general public for numbers. You can't really improve your innate ability, but you can work harder at it. Strategies help, like the mnemonics mentioned above (but that one seems time consuming). I try to associate numbers I come across with the same digits in another unit that I can associate with something else. 350 becomes 3:50 and I think about what I might be doing then.

I also write stuff down a lot. I've got my various phone numbers written down in several places. I've got notebooks and scraps of paper all over my desk--keep it organized and you'll look efficient and precise, and you'll have it at hand at the next meeting.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:17 AM on January 19, 2007

If you remember better with context, give yourself some context. Learn a few wacky facts and peg the numbers you have to remember to that. For example if you know your local mall is X squre feet, and your local stadium is Y square feet, you can think, "Ok, that project is somewhere between mall and stadium sized." Same thing with $$. Pretty soon you will have a mental picture associated with various numbers. It's all about being in the ballpark, not remembering exact digits.
posted by selfmedicating at 11:38 AM on January 19, 2007

You can remember numbers. I just think that the more experienced people have a better feel for it. When I started my current job (finance) I was bad at remembering basis points and doing the math in my head (just multiplication), but I have been forcing myself to do more and remember more (i.e., I have no trouble remembering a 9-digit SSN anymore because we use them a lot for tax information). Now, I can pretty quickly estimate what 0.20% is on $8M.

A lot of disciplines seem to use a lot of numbers, but they really typically tend to fall within a manageable range. Once you get use to workign with those ranges (i.e., for me is 0 - 1%) it gets a lot easier.
posted by robabroad at 11:45 AM on January 19, 2007

Just try to put numbers in a context. That will make them easier to remember.

952 square feet? 30'x30'=900 sq ft~952 sq ft

Do something like that to give a random number an additional dimension.
posted by JJ86 at 12:28 PM on January 19, 2007

Try connecting a number to an image, color or something.
posted by TravisJeffery at 1:20 PM on January 19, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions. I guess what I mean is not how to remember a specific number as I can definitely do that when the need arises. I'm more interested in being better about numbers generally. I have numbers flying across my desktop all day long in reports and such so there's not much way for me to know which ones are important enough to apply some specific strategy to.

To some extent, I suppose it's true that as I get more used to the job, I'll have more context and be better about remembering stuff. Right now the numbers are all floating in a context-less sea and need to be tied up to something for me to get them straight. However, the type of work I'm doing now isn't all that different than what I've done for the last 10 years or so, only now the numbers play a much bigger part in it. It was always the same types of numbers only now the aspect of my work (urban planning) that I'm dealing with is much more about the numbers than the ideas they embody.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 1:36 PM on January 19, 2007

The Major System might be exactly what you're looking for. (This is how people memorize things like Pi (as phrontist pointed out), decks of cards, and so on).
posted by wireless at 2:09 PM on January 19, 2007

Just keep writing things down, preferably in a little notepad you can keep on you. As time goes by, you may well find that you're consulting your written notes less often. In any case, their existence will let you stop worrying about your memory, and this lack of worry will probably let it improve.
posted by flabdablet at 2:15 PM on January 19, 2007

I read a book where he assigned pictures to all the numbers and told you to make bizarre scenes out of the pictures, the weirder the better to make it stick.

So six would be a camel and three would be an airplane and two would be an armchair and if you have to remember 3-2-6 you imagine an airplane dropping bombs on an armchair with a camel hiding under it.

What you do if you need to remember 3.14159265358979323846 I don't know. That's going to be some weird, weird movie playing in your head.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:17 PM on January 19, 2007

I've always been good at memorizing numbers. I also see numbers in color, something I've done since I was a small child. I'm not sure if it will work if you do it on purpose, but try assigning a color to each digit and see if that helps.
posted by found dog one eye at 2:21 PM on January 19, 2007

i understand what you mean about the difference between memorizing a specific number and being able to recall less significant numerical data.

giving some more processor time to conceptualizing a number may help (like others have suggested). for instance, a square footage could be compared to your home, an interest rate could be compared to you mortgage or savings account, or an amount of money could be compared to your income. i think this extra step of relating it to a personally significant number--one you have no trouble remembering--will give you an extra bit of information to hang onto.

additionally, maybe some simple exercise would bring up your general ability. if you routinely use a calculator, maybe consider working it out longhand or in your head and then checking with a calculator. calculating gratuities or sales tax come to mind.
posted by mdpc98 at 6:34 PM on January 19, 2007

mdpc98 has a good point: You really can improve your mental fitness and acuity by exercising your mind.

How about toning up those synapses with some sudoku (or some other type of puzzle) in your downtime (at lunch, on the train, etc.)?

Worth a shot (and maybe $1.25 for a book of puzzles/games).
posted by gohlkus at 7:18 PM on January 19, 2007

I am unable to find the link, but John Allen Paulos, a mathmetician wrote a book called Innumeracy. I just googled (books) Paulos and he spent a lifetime writing about getting comfortable with numbers. Definitely worth a look.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:29 PM on January 19, 2007

I'm more interested in being better about numbers generally.

One of the best tips I've found for developing this facility — because it's not easy for me, either — is to perform simple operations during everyday life. For example, if you see a sign posting a 35 mph speed limit, then make a point to say to yourself, "3 + 5 = 8." If you're buying a CD that costs $11.99, then maybe you'd think to yourself, "1 + 1 + 9 + 9 = 20" — or, maybe you'd think, "99 - 11 = 88." Et cetera. Numbers are everywhere, and you can do this all day long — add, subtract, multiple, divide.
posted by cribcage at 11:11 PM on January 19, 2007

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