A few months ago, I barely even thought about the daunting Elements. This week, I memorized the periodic table of the elements using a mnemonic system called the Memory Palace. No flash cards, no money spent, no courses taken, no song, and no studying. Best part? More than just memorizing, creating a memory palace also works well for long-term memory!
I worked through the first 30 elements in a day, and finished the rest of them throughout the week, in between running a business and preparing for a graduation. With this method, if you’re on a time crunch, you can probably memorize it within a couple days! 🙂
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After pulling a huge blank on a quiz that I actually studied on, I realized I needed to revamp my study habits. Rote memorization just wasn’t working for me. As fate would have it, I came across this article on memory; and learned about a medical student, Alex Mullen, who memorized the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in 21.5 seconds. (The current world record is 18.653 seconds!) Alex has set the world record for the most random numbers memorized in an hour – 3,029. He’s also memorized 3,888 binary digits in 30 minutes.
Are you kidding me?? I didn’t need to memorize thousands of random digits and cards that quickly; I just needed to pass some tests!
My research led me to the book Moonwalking with Einstein, and what’s called the Memory Palace, or the ‘method of Loci.’ (The author of Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer, has a pretty cool story about how he “accidentally” won the US Memory Championships.)
No super memory or super brain required: the method of Loci is a 2500-year-old Greek mnemonic device that is based on spatial memory. In short, it is the method of mentally creating images for what you want to memorize, and placing those images in an order, in an area you are familiar with.
This “palace” could be your home, your drive to work, your high school, or your favorite restaurant. When you want to recall each item, you mentally retrace your steps. (To try it out, here’s Alex Mullen walking you through a list of 20 random words.)
As I tested it out with random objects, it was easy to visualize concrete items like your grocery list, but what about more abstract terms, like helium or lithium? Science has never interested me (I’m a history buff!) but I wanted to put this method to the test. I wanted to memorize the Periodic Table of the Elements!
I downloaded the app Memrise, co-created by World Memory Champion competitor Ed Cooke, for inspiration for creating images for each of the elements. It took a strong imagination to truly make each element “stick”, but I had so much fun doing this! (Now, I just need to work on my pronunciations.) Is this method crazy? Yes. Does it work? Yes.
In elementary school, I remember memorizing the books of the Bible to the song He Is by Aaron Jeffery. With this table, I wanted to not only memorize the random names, but also have a basic understanding of them. Many of the mnemonics are silly and fun images inspired by the element’s name, but many have historical and/or scientific meanings behind them, for example, Iridium, #77.
Using the Memory Palace technique for the Periodic Table
Next to each element, think of a person or item that could help you visualize each element. For Titanium, I imagined Sia singing her hit Titanium on top of the Titanic. You could visualize the Titans from the movie Remember the Titans, the Tennessee football team, or the Titans from Greek mythology.
To make your illustrations more memorable, fully use your five senses! (Hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting, and smelling) Be as specific as possible. Instead of imagining a “dog” – imagine a German shepherd wagging his tail.
The crazier the better. I can visualize Jackson Pollock messily painting a picture of yellow pollen; splattering paint all over our piano (Polonium, 84). I can smell the herb plant on our countertop (Erbium, 68). Walking down the stairs to the next element, I make a point to trip over Snow White’s seven dwarves planting Nitrogen (Nitrogen, 7) so that I never forget them.
After you have your images (or skip the above step and create images as you go around your house), walk through your house and “place” each object. I started in our driveway, and after a few twists and turns, I ended up in our backyard pool.
Place them in notable places around your house; in front of your refrigerator, jumping on top of your trampoline, swimming in your kitchen sink, overflowing from your computer screen. The crazier the better!
To get a feel for how this works, here are the items I used, with their locations around our house. I made up my image mnemonics and locations as I went. My image adaptions and inspiration came from the incredible free app Memrise, which I used for this whole table. (I would highly recommend it.)
One great thing about Memory Palaces is that they are so memorable because they are personalized for every person. For example, I visualize the BFG, Big Friendly Giant from Roald Dahl’s classic, for element #64, Gadolinium. “Gadol” is Hebrew for big or great, a language I love. My sister Lili’s old Chinese name is Lulu, so she was a natural fit for #71, Lutetium. For Hydrogen, element #1, Hydroplane, Hydrant, or maybe hydrogen peroxide may work best for you!
Memorizing the Periodic Table with My House
Locations: Basketball hoop in our driveway, behind our van in the garage, the top of our garden hose cart, front step
1 – Hydrogen – a bright red fire hydrant
2 – Helium – a comedian (He He) on a horse with two balloons
3 – Lithium – 3 limes (lithium is connected to lemon lime sodas like 7-Up)
4 – Beryllium – a bear reading Iliad
Mud room, leading left to our basement
Locations: Mud room, top stair railing, middle of stairs, bottom of stairs
5 – Boron – 5 boring morons
6 – Carbon – a carbon diamond bracelet
7 – Nitrogen – Snow White’s seven dwarves planting nitrogen (Nitrogen is often used in fertilizers)
8 – Oxygen – an octopus on top of the stuffed bears at the bottom of our stairs
Locations: game table, hanging dart board, carpet aisle
9 – Fluorine – a cat (9 lives) brushing his teeth with fluoride (fluorine)
10 – Neon – a neon sign saying “Open at 10”
11 – Sodium – mounds of salt on the ground (Don’t step in the salt! Na!)
Locations: on top of computer, wrapped around the desk, sitting in the desk’s chair
12 – Magnesium – melting chocolate Magnum bars
13 – Aluminum – a desk wrapped in aluminum foil
14 – Silicon – a silly 14 year old con man
Locations: pool table, movie cabinet, imaginary mini-pool beside movie cabinet, couch, giant fluffy bean bag, sitting on a windowsill leading to the outside of our house
15 – Phosphorus – 15 Vietnamese men eating pho (Vietnamese soup)
16 – Sulfur – my sister Hannah suffering (sulfuring) on her 16th birthday
17 – Chlorine – Hannah diving into a pool of just chlorine
18 – Argon – a car driving to college (when you’re 18 you “are-gone”)
19 – Potassium – a bunch of bananas exploding out of our giant bean bag
20 – Calcium – a glass of milk
Leading to the outside of our house through a small window
Locations: small pit, in the grass
21 – Scandium – scandalous beer bottles (drinking age: 21)
22 – Titanium – Sia singing her hit “Titanium” on the Titanic
Locations: Right as you walk into the fence, the cement left of Vana White, a swing, hanging from our roof, below the Iron on the ground, a pit
23 – Vanadium – Vana White from Wheel of Fortune with Psalm 23 on the board
24 – Chromium – the Google Chrome symbol as a clock (24 hours in a day)
25 – Manganese – children receiving Manga (Japanese comics) for Christmas (December 25)
26 – Iron – an iron hanging from the roof (Fe = iron; male = man; therefore I am Iron Man)
27 – Cobalt – cobalt blue bottles with Blue’s Clues on them
28 – Nickel – a pile of nickels
Locations: Porch step, porch square 1, porch square 2, on top of our hot tub cover, pine tree close to hot tub (right), area left of hot tub (left), right outside the master bedroom window
29 – Copper – Copper from The Fox and the Hound running around, being Cute
30 – Zinc – the kitchen sink
31 – Gallium – astronomer Galileo holding a cute Thirty-One thermal tote
32 – Germanium – a WWII German sniper saying, “3…2…”
33 – Arsenic – an arson named Nic setting our pine tree on fire
34 – Selenium – Selena Gomez
35 – Bromine – two “bros” mining
36 – Krypton – Superman flying through the window
Location: (Headed left towards the master bathroom) In a decorative basket on top of the toilet, in the bath tub, on the bathroom shelf, in the sink, on the towel rack
37 – Rubidium – Elf on a Shelf bathing, rub a dub dub!
38 – Strontium – a strong man/my dad lifting weights
39 – Yttrium – Y tree, um? (WWII began in 1939, and Yiddish was a common language among Jewish people at the time)
40 – Zirconium – Sher Khan from The Jungle Book, in an ark for 40 days and 4o nights
41 – Niobium – Niall from One Direction
Location: In front of a small magnifying mirror, bedspread, on the TV screen, on the floor, headed outside bedroom door
42 – Molybdenum – Molly, a mole, in denim, admiring herself in a mirror
43 – Technetium – a giant tech network with 43 connections
44 – Ruthenium – Babe Ruth hitting his 44th home run
45 – Rhodium – a cowboy at a rodeo celebrating the end of WWII (1945)
46 – Palladium – the London Palladium
Location: On top of TV, on the windowsill, on my bed, running across our dressers, on a ladder leading towards my sisters’ beds
47 – Silver – an aging (Ag) silver wig
48 – Cadmium – Cadbury eggs
49 – Indium – an Indian wedding
50 – Tin – Belgian comic hero Tin Tin and his dog Snowy (Sn)
51 – Antimony – ants carrying money on a slab (Sb)
My (other) sister’s bedroom
Location: Nightstand, sister’s top bunk, sister’s bottom bunk, windowsill, underneath the floor fan
52 – Tellurium – deck of cards; “tell your mum” there’s 52 cards in a deck
53 – Iodine – a feast, “I dine”
54 – Xenon – a yellow planet (Xanthos means yellow in Greek, and Xenon sounds alien-ish)
55 – Cesium – Julis Ceaser, who died at 55
56 – Barium – a coffin for Barry; “bury him”
Hallway, leading towards kitchen and dining room
Location: Hallway, next to kitchen cabinets, couch, fire place, behind dining room table, in front of dining room plants, on top of side decorative table, answering the telephone, in the refrigerator ice maker
57 – Lanthanum – lan cables holding lanterns (I imagine the lanterns from the movie Tangled)
58 – Cerium – a cereal serum
59 – Praseodymium – the evil witch in Snow White saying “pray she dies”
60 – Neodymium – neon dynamite, ready to explode
61 – Promethium – “pro meth” – a backpack
62 – Samarium – the good Samaritan
63 – Europium – a map of Europe
64 – Gadolinium – the Big Friendly Giant from Ronald Dahl’s novel The BFG (“gadol” is “big” in Hebrew)
65 – Terbium – Turbo from the Disney movie, with a speed sign; speed limit 65
Location: Countertop, stove, next countertop area, kitchen sinks, by coffee maker
66 – Dysprosium – Dystopian (666) poetry (prose)
67 – Holmium – Sherlock Holmes, with his hat and magnifying glass (what comes after 6? 7 of course.)
68 – Erbium – an herb plant
69 – Thulium – Christian singer Jonathan Thullin
70 – Ytterbium – otter mom (my mom was born in 1970)
Front hall bathroom
Location: Top of bathroom sink, on the toilet, in the bath tub, on the towel rack, walking out of the bathroom, path leading to the living room
71 – Lutetium – my sister Lili (formerly Lulu) playing the lute
72 – Hafnium – a cow (heifer)
73 – Tantalum – my younger sisters “tantalizing” each other
74 – Tungsten – a wolf (W) sticking out his tongue
75 – Rhenium – a rhino
76 – Osmium – a yellow brick road; on its way to Oz
Location: Chair, table, chair 2, table 2, couch, table 3, giant front windowsill, piano, coffee table, on top of the China cabinet in front of front door, our front door, our screen door
77 – Iridium – a rainbow with 7 colors (Iridium was named after the Greek goddess Iris, personification of rainbows)
78 – Platinum – a platinum plate
79 – Gold – Britt Nicole singing her pop hit “Gold” – surrounded with gold glitter and Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (Au)
80 – Mercury – the planet Mercury
81 – Thallium – thallium Stallion (they rhyme)
82 – Lead – giant pencil lead stuck in a PB and J sandwich (Pb)
83 – Bismuth – a bison and his wreath bis-muth (business – he is selling wreaths)
84 – Polonium – artist Jackson Pollock painting pollen
85 – Astatine – “ask a teen” – a teen asking questions)
86 – Radon – “radio on” – a radio
87 – Francium – France’s flag draped revolutionary style; viva la France!
88 – Radium – the cover of Radioactive by Imagine Dragons
Location: Porch, tree, mailbox, giant pine tree, tree stump, running around tree stump
89 – Actinium – acting mimes
90 – Thorium – Thor
91 – Protactinium – 911 protects
92 – Uranium – a uranium bullet
93 – Neptunium – a statue of Neptune, god of the sea
94 – Plutonium – Disney’s Pluto
Opposite side of our house
Location: Draped over our bedroom windows, searching through our bushes, a rose bush stand, a giant rock, standing on an air conditioner, in the middle of our lawn, (walking forward a bit) right before I hop over the fence into our back yard again
95 – Americium – an American flag
96 – Curium – Marie Curie
97 – Berkelium – Berkley college logo
98 – Californium – a guy surfing in California
99 – Einsteinium – Albert Einstein
100 – Fermium – Fern from Charlotte’s Web; “fermium” written in a spider web
101 – Mendelevium – Dmitri Mendeleev, father of the Periodic Table
The “back” portion of our backyard – left area
Location: right after I crawl underneath the fence, pine tree in the flower garden area, behind garden area, small path leading out of garden area, sand box, play set swing, play set swing 2, trampoline, decorative chair in a landscaped circle
102 – Nobelium – the Nobel peace prize
103 – Lawrencium – actress Jennifer Lawrence hunting in a tree
104 – Rutherfordium – President Rutherford B. Hayes sitting in the Oval Office
105 – Dubnium – dubstep club music
106 – Seaborgium – a sea borg
107 – Bohrium – a bored boar falling asleep
108 – Hassium – Hassan from The Kite Runner
109 – Meitnerium – a meat nightmare of jumping meat
110 – Darmstadtium – a darn dorm stadium
The “back” portion of our backyard – right area
Location: Tree, top of rabbit hutch, planting tomatoes in our vegetable garden, on top of shed, (bottom of shed) breaking into our shed, giant pine tree, landscaping beside pool, inside the pool
111 – Roentgenium – an X-ray (Roentgen invented the X-ray, and the X-ray was originally called the Roengtan Ray)
112 – Copernicium – copper wires
113 – Ununtrium – a nun planting three tomatoes
114 – Flerovium – flowers and eggs
115 – Ununpentium – you nun, repent! (for breaking into our shed)
116 – Livermorium – more liver
117 – Ununseptium – a toilet (septic)
118 – Ununoctium – another octopus (one one oct)
So that’s it! That is how a non-science fan learned to enjoy learning the Periodic table!
Extra Periodic Table Resources:
- Periodic Table Battleship Game by Teach Beside Me
- The Amazing Race: Periodic Table Edition
- Free Periodic Table Abbreviation Worksheets, with Countries
- Free Blank Periodic Table chart to fill in (It’s also easily customizable!)
- Visual Cartoon Flashcards for the Periodic Table (you can also buy them on Etsy)
- Create a 3D Model of a Carbon Atom
- Mystery of Matter – narrated by the great Michael Emerson, the Mystery of Matter was an engaging three part docudrama of the elements, and helped me learn how many of the elements were discovered, what their purpose was, and how they received their names.
Excellent! God bless you. Thanks.
[…] Memrise is best known for its foreign language resources. It is an app/site that associates each word, or in this case element, with an image. It was co-founded by world memory competitor Ed Cooke, who was featured in the New York Times bestseller Moonwalking With Einstein. With the method of loci “memory palace” system best known for its use in Sherlock, you can mentally file these images to help memorize the Periodic Table in order. Crazy, and it works. With Memrise, I was able to memorize the Periodic Table in a week. […]
[…] Crayon Labels – $12 Image credit: Etsy I memorized the Periodic Table earlier this year, and have been obsessed with it ever since. For the nerd in your life, these […]
Hi miss Sam, thank you for sharing your knowledge about how fun it is to memorize the periodic table. I’ll totally teach the kids about this, they will surely love it. What do you think?
[…] Memory Championships. With the help of World Memory Championship competitor, Foer learns about the memory palace mnemonic system, which involves using spatial memory. I now use it for all of my studying, which […]
I love this! Thanks for a lovely new Memory System insight. I’ve used Lorayne & Lucas’ method for many years, but I like adding the Loci dimension into it. My grade school aged (homeschooled) daughter is working on memorizing the table using a song – she loves Chemistry! I love your blog – I read it regularly!
Thanks so much! I’ll have to look up the Lorayne and Lucas method!
Umm…Wow! Awesome job!! I thought I was odd by having a wacky, in my opinion cool, imagination! This is so cool! Love your blog, and new subscriber here!??
Thanks, Susana! Hope you enjoy this crazy method 🙂
[…] your hand at memorizing the periodic table (it can be done in less than a […]
[…] Memorize the periodic table with the memory palace system. (I tried it and it […]
I need more info about how you used Memrise. I’m looking at the app store and the only one I see is for Memorizing languages. It doesn’t list the Periodic Table as one of its languages, so now I’m confused. How did you use Memrise to help you learn the Periodic Table?
Their main focus is languages, but if you download the app, go to Find > Other Topics > Math and Science you can scroll down to find the Periodic Table!
Thanks so much!
A tiny suggestion about “54 – Xenon – a yellow planet (Xanthos means yellow in Greek, and Xenon sounds alien-ish)”.
1) ‘xanthós’ does not mean yellow in Greek. It means blond though in Modern Greek only.
2) In Modern Greek yellow is translated as ‘kítrino’ (< citrus) while in Ancient Greek there was no yellow color at all and the closest possible was the color of ocher.
3) Xenon, a noble gas discovered in England in 1898, got its name from the Greek word 'xenon', neuter singular form of 'xénos', meaning 'foreign(er)', 'strange(r)', or 'guest' – translations valid both for Ancient and Modern Greek.
4) Observing xenon in a gas discharge tube, one may easily see that the color emitted is somewhere between purple and blue and definitely not yellow.
5) Who said Greek is an easy language?
The link to the blank table of elements is missing (I’d guess that the shortcode you’d originally used is no longer supported by your current theme?). What’s the link for that again?
Thanks in advance. This looks really cool!
Hey Laura! I just updated it. 🙂 Thanks, I hope you like it!