It's in the Genes: How to Memorize Tricky Number/Letter Associations

Our newest question comes from a reader who’s a medical student in Italy:

“I use a lot the memory palace for my studies but I was wondering if you can help me to memorise in an easy way the genes, because they are made with letters and numbers for example: BRCA1, FGFR1, HLA, Cn3D.... something like this! I hope this can be helpful for all the other medical students”

This is an interesting question that has a lot of potential solutions. It seems like there are two distinct difficulties to memorizing these abstract names. Sometimes you’ll need to differentiate between strings of letters (e.g. trinucleotide repeats diseases), and sometimes you’ll need to differentiate between numbers (e.g. HLA subtypes). When it’s a combination of the two, we should be able to combine techniques to memorize letters and numbers together.

As always, knowing the meaning behind what you’re memorizing is always a good start. BRCA stands for BReast CAncer, and perhaps that’s enough to help you remember it.

Strings of Letters

I realize that trinucleotide repeats are not genes, but they’re common and complicated enough to provide ample strategies that can be applied to easier targets. The following table is something that most medical students will have to memorize at some point. As you can see, it’s all the same few letters in different orders.

The most instinctive strategy is to read the three letter-string as a word. This technique works better for some--Friedreich Ataxia becomes “Gaa” and Huntington Disease becomes “Cag.” I might imagine Lady Gaa Gaa getting into a Taxi (aTAXIa). If I’ve designated a room to store all my information about Huntington Disease, I might place a cackling CAGkling witch on a locus in this room. And that’s exactly how I memorized this table--by using the first locus in their respective rooms to hold my image for their trinucleotide sequences.

For the others without vowels, I try reading them in order to see if anything pops out: Fragile-X becomes “See-Gi-Gi.” That’s perfect for me because I think of Alex’s grandmother’s cat, Gigi. See Gigi pounce on the X.

Lastly, there’s the pesky “Myotonic Dystrophy,” which is C-T-G. It neither reads like a word nor spells out a semantic phrase. Alex and I always try to pick the first thing that pops in our minds, so for CTG, I happened to memorize it as See The Girl. Other options are CCTV (cCTG), CutTinG...these are just ones that popped in my head as I’m writing this post.


Memorizing numbers is generally harder because they feel more abstract. Here are genes with numbers that you might have to memorize.

I didn’t use mnemonics to remember H-L-A, because I was saying it so often in my head that the combination just made sense, like when parents yell their children’s full names--the combination just makes sense!

I won’t go into my images for the diseases, just how I converted the numbers into images. Alex, of course, uses the Major System. But if you don’t already have an image for every number between 0 and 999, now might not be a great time to start. For me, it was easier to come up with images that fit the numbers.

Like with strings of letters, my first instinct is to read them aloud and see if I get something that sounds like a real word. B8 sounds a lot like “BAIT” to me. That’s an easy image!

B27 was a little harder. I happened to be at a locus where there was a receptionist’s desk, so I said to myself, “Just imagine this receptionist happens to B(e) 27--just a year older than you!” Sometimes the first things that pop in my head end up working really well.

For DQ2/DQ8, I cheated a little bit because it’s the only one that has the DQ. I only memorized the DQ--as “Dairy Queen,” the soft-serve fast food chain. But if you wanted to memorize 2 and 8, I would say you could try “too late” as a phrase, Dairy Queen is open 2 L8.

Lastly, in the United States, DR is an abbreviation for “drive,” so for all of the DRs, I thought of vehicles.

DR2 is a racing bicycle because it has 2 wheels.

DR3 is a child’s tricycle because it has 3 wheels.

DR4 is a 4-wheel drive SUV

DR5 is a monster truck, which in my mind is really extra and has a 5th wheel.

I hope this blog post jumpstarts your creativity when it comes to memorizing what may seem like boring strings of numbers and letters. I’d love to hear if anyone uses other techniques to convert these into images, or if you’ve found a non-visual approach that works better!