The number peg memory system

28 Aug

In the peg method, sometimes called the minor peg system, an individual memorizes a fixed set of ordered mnemonic cues. It can be used to learn ordered and unordered lists, such as a set of historical events or your weekly shopping. The technique relies on the use of vivid visual images.

The most widely used peg system is the number peg method. This system invented by John Sambrook in 1889 and a simplified version is described in most books on memory improvement. The peg word system is easy to learn and can supplement other mnemonic devices that we will be learning, such as the Dominic system. The first step is to create a numbered list of ten mnemonics pegs. Each peg word should rhymes with its respective number making the list easier to learn. Here is a suggested list, but you should modify if you can think of words that are more memorable to you. For example if the word “bricks” is easier for you to visualize than the word “sticks,” by all means, use it as your peg word for number six.

Number Peg Word
1               Gun
2               Shoe
3               Tree
4               Door
5               Hive
6               Sticks
7              Heaven
8              Gate
9             Vine
10           Hen

Once you have committed the list to memory, you are now ready to try to learn a list. What you will do is to make a vivid visual association with each item.

So let’s try to learn a grocery list. Suppose you want to purchase the following ten items; 1. oatmeal, 2. apples, 3. bananas, 4. spaghetti, 5. peanut butter, 6. carrots, 7. mushrooms, 8. maple syrup, 9. baked beans, 10. soy milk. Here is a chart suggesting visual associations between the items and the peg words.


Peg Word






Gun shooting out oatmeal (instead of bullets)




Shoe crushing apples under its heel




A tree with bananas hanging on it




Spaghetti forcing itself through a door



peanut butter

Bee hive made of peanut butter




A bundle of carrots wrapped up like sticks




Giant mushrooms growing in heaven



Maple syrup

A gate holding back a flood of maple syrup



Baked Beans

Cans of baked beans growing on a vine



Soy milk

A hen laying a carton of soy milk

If some of these associations seem bizarre, so much the better. The more bizarre, the easier to remember, a phenomenon called the bizarreness effect. It is important to try to create vivid visual images for each association. If, in addition you can link the image to something you already know the easier it will be to remember. For example, when I think of a gate holding back a flood of maple syrup, I am reminded of the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919

When one reuses the same pegs over and over again there is always some danger that memorizing one list might interfere with the learning of a later list. However, research suggests that the number peg system can used over and over again.

Here is a video showing a version of the number peg system:

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