Irrational: How do ASW Students Memorise so Many Digits of Pi?

By Alex Buckley

Last month, the ASW Pi Recitation record was broken twice in one day, with many competitors reciting Pi to dozens of digits. How do people do that?

In order to memorize anything in a large amount, people need a method to help them. This holds especially true for memorizing Pi.

The reason Pi is used so often as a way to gauge a person’s ability to memorize, can be largely attributed to the two things Pi is most known for, never repeating and never ending. These two characteristics of Pi force anyone trying to memorize large amounts of it to learn or develop their own system to do so, as opposed to simply memorizing a pattern.

The most common method for memorizing Pi is grouping. Memorization through grouping means a person will memorize a certain amount of digits at a time, typically 5 or 10, before moving on to the next set. Between the memorization of each set, it’s extremely important to recite all the digits memorized so far in order to connect the newly memorized set to the ones already memorized. This technique can prove to be quite effective, and depending on the person, can allow someone to memorize anywhere from 20 to 1000 digits, before the method begins being inefficient, due to the very basic idea behind it.

Jonathan C., who won the ASW Pi day competition by reciting 389 digits, said he used this method, but with two digits at a time. “I wrote [them] down all at once, then memorised [them] in strings of 2,” said Jonathan.

A method often used by people who have broken the world record is to create a story. For example, if we begin a story with “Eat a cake…” we have 3.14, because each word corresponds to a number through the number of letters in the word. Using a slightly different version of  this method, but with the same basic idea, Mathematician Mike Keith wrote a short story called “Cadaeic Cadenza” in which approximately 3800 digits of pi were encoded. This system has a name, “Pilish”. The reason turning Pi into stories tends to be so successful for memorization, boils down to the human brain’s ability to more easily remember a story and characters, than a list of arbitrary digits.

Finally, the strangest, most time consuming, yet most impressive method is known as the “Loci” or “Mind Palace” technique. According to LiveScience.com, Loci is an advanced memorization technique that utilizes spatial visualization, and takes years to master. To memorize Pi by using Loci, one would assign a certain set of digits to a specific place, perhaps the left armrest of a seat, and practice that set whenever that person sees that armrest. By continually doing this, the brain will begin to tie the set of digits to that location or object, and by doing so with many sets of digits, and many objects or places, one simply needs to walk through the space in which those objects are to visualize all the sets of digits associated with each object.

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