National Treasure 2.7 Deciphered

In one of my previous posts, I asked for help interpreting a rather bizarre dream imagining a new plotline for a National Treasure movie. These movies often involve deciphering secret codes, and so did my post. My [day]dream was actually an aid to help me remember 40 digits of the irrational, transcendental constant of Leonhard Euler, e.

 Here is the dream again with numeric annotations in brackets:

I don’t know whether it’s because we just read a case about the War of 1812, but I dreamed a sort of screenplay that begins with a tight close up with two identical faces of Andrew Jackson [1828,1828 (Jackson was first elected in 1828)]. As the camera pulls back, we see that the Jacksons are struggling to break free from being inside a cramped triangle [459045 (interior angles of an isosceles right triangle)]. To make matters worse, we see that their bodies are jerking about because they are holding between them an electrified neon equation that is blinking “2+3=5” [235]. The equation is encased in some kind of phosphorescent circle [360 (degrees)]. They aren’t willing to drop the circle, because on closer inspection one can make out a miniature Andrew Jackson [28] who is trapped inside the circle. Then out of nowhere an airplane [747] swoops in and hooks the top of the triangle so that the Jacksons and the rest of the triangle’s contents are suddenly dangling in midair behind the aircraft. Cut to the cockpit interior and we encounter the demented mastermind who mutters moo-ha-ha while strangely flipping odd cards 1, 3, 5 from a deck [this is a bigger leap, but I remember 135 for the actual cards; 26 for half the cards in a deck; and 62 for the flipping]. When suddenly Nicholas Cage bursts into the cockpit. He looks around and sees a 7 x 7 pallet of containers [4977 (49=7x7)]. Cage opens up a container takes out a big bottle of ketchup [57 (Heinz 57)] and squirts ketchup on the demented mastermind, saving the day.  In my dream, I called the incomplete movie, “National Treasure, 2.7.”

 So when I tell myself the story, I can write down: 2.718281828459045235360287471352662497757

The back story on this escapade is a homework assignment that my daughter Anna brought home the other day. I initially was annoyed that her teacher had asked her to memorize 40 digits of e. But then I noticed that the review sheet subtly had spaces between certain sequences so that you could see that 1828 sequence was repeated and was followed by 459045. I remembered the claim from the uber-cool National Geographic TV show Brain Games, that it is easier to remember dramatic stories than unrelated objects. After about two minutes, Anna and I had concocted the crazy National Treasure narrative. 

Instead of being annoyed by Anna’s assignment, I’m now kind of excited by it. Not because it’s valuable to memorize e, but because the process of memorization can teach us something about the brain. While it seems daunting (if not impossible) to remember an abstract sequence of numbers, it’s kind of hard not to remember the bizarre elements of my Andrew Jackson narrative. You can teach yourself 40 digits in less than 5 minutes. 

As a crude test of this sticky story hypothesis, I came back to my contracts class about a week later and offered my students a chance to win 20 bucks if they could write down the 40-digits from memory. Eight out of about 75 volunteered to try and passed the test.

I randomly selected a winner from the 8 and happily handed over a twenty dollar bill – which fittingly bears the image of Andrew Jackson. 

 If you want instead to memorize pi, you might start by learning the sentence:

“How I need a drink, alcoholic of course, after the tough lectures involving quantum mechanics.”

It’s an alternative approach developed by Sasha Volokh to remember the first 15 digits of pi. Count the number of letters in each word, and you get 3.14159265358979.

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  1. Zak says:

    You typed e incorrectly. The story describes a 747 swooping down, not a 474.

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  2. caleb b says:

    Absolutely!! I have been using this technique when studying. I use a system that I call Key Words, which are basically mnemonic in nature, but with added enhancements.

    Essentially, the brain is easily bored. So when you are reading long sequences of numbers, the brain just stops listening because it knows that it can’t remember too long of a number, so it tunes it out. But, change the numbers into a song, and you access an different part of the brain, one that is more entertaining. Hence, we remember lyrics, but forget pin numbers. Creating a story is similar.

    1) Write down the information in a very condensed format, it must be hand written bc this aids the memorization process. When recalling the information on the page, the mind will recognize your own hand writing and “see” how your answer looked on the page. Type written words simply do not work.

    2) develop a key words, or quick story, for what you want to remember. Example: in biological anthropology, Platyrrhines are new world monkeys found in South America and have tails that are prehensile (allowing them to hang by their tails), while catarrhines are old world monkeys from Africa and have non-prehensile tails. It’s very easy for the brain to get confused, and indeed, many students miss this question on the test. But a simple story makes it almost impossible to get them confused. “Hey man, I’m Plato and I’m new and cool, wanna hang? That cat over there? Man, he’s too old to hang.”

    This gets condensed even further to Plato’s New and wants to Hang. So now several sentences of information is condensed into just a few key words. The brain fills in the rest.

    3)Read the hand-written page of notes out loud, audibly speaking, but in either a whisper or a slightly altered voice. Again, the brain is easily bored. It starts tuning out if it heres the same voice too long. So by adjusting the voice used, you are activating more of your brain and can remember more.

    4) when possible, develop hand signals that go with the words. This, again, aids in memory. So Plato the Platyrrhines might be the act of pretending to ball up play-dough.

    After doing all these, you now have 4 different connection points to remembering the information. You have:
    1) the mind’s eye of seeing the words on the page
    2) an interesting phrase or story
    3) you’ve heard the information
    4) a hand signal

    So now, on test day, if you remember ANY of the four connection points, you’ll remember the information because the brain will automatically direct you to where the memory is stored.

    I wish, on the first day of high school, the teachers would have taught us HOW to study instead of that we should study.

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  3. Hal Varian says:

    Now I, even I, would celebrate
    In rhymes inapt, the great
    Immortal Syracusan, rivaled nevermore,
    Who in his wondrous lore,
    Pass on before,
    Left men his guidance how to circles mensurate.

    http://pages.intnet.mu/cueboy/education/maths/pi/england.htm

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  4. robyn g says:

    I once tried learning that way. The trouble is, I hated it. Once I understood the real problem, I never needed to memorize the facts essential to its solution. Just never seemed to forget them. My memory may well be selective, but I have total recall.

    So in answer to the question at hand- thanks really Professor Gans for what was needed in advance. Looks like I am about to fly.

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  5. Rajan Sambandam says:

    If you haven’t heard about it (or perhaps did, but forgot), check out Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer for a very interesting walk down various memory lanes culminating in the US Memory Championship.

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