How to Improve Your Memory

Peg Systems

Peg systems are probably the best known of all memory systems. In these systems, items to be remembered are pegged to, or associated with, certain images in a prearranged order. The idea behind the peg systems has been traced to the mid-1600s, when it was developed by Henry Herdson, who linked a digit with any one of several objects that resembled the number (for example, "1 candle"). The system gets its name from the fact that the peg words act as mental "pegs" on which you can hang the information that you need to remember.

The peg method is a better memory strategy than either the link or loci method because it's not dependent on retrieving items in sequence. You can access any item on the list without having to work your way through the whole thing. It is, however, a bit more complicated to learn at first. In the peg system, you learn a standard set of peg words, and then you link the items you need to remember with the pegs. The peg method can be used to remember ideas and concepts and to organize activities as well as to remember lists for shopping and errands.


The various forms of the peg system all use a concrete object to represent each number. What's different amongst them is how you choose the object that represents each number. One peg system relies on using pegs that look like the numbers they represent, another relies on pegs that rhyme with the number, one relies on meaning, and another uses alphabetic pegs. Two of the easiest peg systems to master are the rhyming and alphabet forms, which we'll discuss here.

Rhyming Pegs (Visual Pegs)

The best-known of the peg systems is the rhyming peg method, in which numbers from one to ten are associated with rhymes: one-bun, two-shoe, and so on. This system was introduced in England sometime around 1879 by John Sambrook. The system is easy to use, and many people already know many of the standard rhymes from the nursery rhyme "one, two, buckle my shoe." In order to use the system, you must memorize the words that rhyme with numbers one through ten (most peg systems don't include a peg word for zero, but you can make one up yourself):

1 = bun

2 = shoe

3 = tree

4 = door

5 = hive

6 = sticks

7 = heaven

8 = gate

9 = vine

10 = hen

1. Now, as you say each rhyme, visualize the item that the peg word represents. Picture it vividly -- is the bun a hot dog bun or a hot cross bun? Is the shoe an old battered sneaker or a black high-heeled pump?

2. Now draw the item. The act of drawing will help you remember the rhyme, creating a strong mental association between the numbers and the words that rhyme with them.

3. Imagine each peg word as vividly as possible. By visualizing the object that each word represents, you'll fix it securely in your mind, creating a strong mental association between the number and the word that rhymes with it.

Once you've formed an association between the numbers and the words that rhyme with them, you've constructed your pegs. Practice by saying each of the peg words out loud. Then try picturing the peg words in place of the numbers as you randomly jump amongst the numbers: five, three, one, eight. Because the words rhyme with the numbers, you don't have to say the numbers to remember the words.

If you want to remember a list, all you have to do is link each item with a peg: the first item with a bun, the second item with a shoe, and so on. To remember the list, call up each peg, and you'll automatically remember the mental image that is linked to each peg.

Here's how it could work for a short grocery list of milk, bread, eggs, and ham. You could start out by visualizing a jug of milk balancing a bun on its lid. Then imagine a muddy sneaker squashing a loaf of French bread. Then think of a tree filled with eggs. And finally, picture a ham in a beret banging on a door to be let in. When you get to the store and you think of one -- bun -- you'll think of a bottle of milk. Two -- shoe -- you'll see a shoe squashing the bread.

Peg words can help you remember lists of items or errands and daily activities. This system may not work for those with memory problems caused by brain damage on one side of the brain, however, since it requires remembering in two distinct stages, one involving the right hemisphere and the other involving the left.

Alphabet Peg Systems

The alphabet makes a good system, since it is naturally ordered and everyone knows it. In order to create concrete images for the letters, each image either rhymes with the letter of the alphabet it represents or has the letter as the initial sound of the word. The alphabet peg system might be: A = hay, B = bee, C = sea. Peg words can be created that rhyme with or sound similar to the letters of the alphabet that they represent:

A = bay

B = bee

C = sea

D = deep

E = eve

F = effect

G = geology

H = age

I = eye

J = jay

K = quay

L = elm

M = Emma

N = end

O = open

P = pea

Q = cue

R = art

S = essay

T = tea

U = you

V = veer

W = double you

X = exit

Y = why

Z = zebra

If you don't like the rhyming aspect of the alphabetic peg-word system, you can come up with a list that doesn't rhyme but that simply uses the same letter of the alphabet to begin each word.

A = artichoke

B = bat

C = cake

D = dog

E = elephant

F = fireman

G = goat

H = horse

I = iron

J = jelly

K = kangaroo

L = llama

M = mouse

N = napkin

O = orange

P = pail

Q = queen

R = rat

S = shoe

T = tank

U = umbrella

V = vase

W = wagon

X = xylophone

Y = yarn

Z = zebra

The only problem with using the alphabet system is that most people don't automatically know the numeric equivalent of the alphabet, so they can't be directly retrieved as easily. For example, most people don't know, without counting, that S is the nineteenth letter, so if they wanted to recall the nineteenth item out of sequence, they would have to count off the letters and then retrieve the associated image.

Other Peg Systems

You can also select peg words on the basis of meaning: one = me (there is only one "me"); three = pitchfork (three prongs); five = hand (five fingers on a hand). Numbers make good peg words because they have a natural order, and everyone knows them. Unfortunately, this system is limited because it's hard to find good peg words to represent numbers beyond ten.


One good way of remembering information is to use chunking; that is, grouping separate bits of information into larger chunks in order to better remember them.

Often, organizing them in a particular way, such as according to sound, rules of grammar, or rhythm can help you recall them. For example, if you want to remember a ten-digit phone number (9991357920), it's much easier to break it up into chunks of two, three, and four digits: 999-135-7920. That's why social security numbers are given in chunks of three, two, and four (999-99-9999) instead of as one unbroken number (999999999). Remembering things is easier when the information is grouped in smaller chunks.

On the next page, learn how you can use something called acrostics as a strategy to better remember information.

To learn more about the various aspects of memory, see: