Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Memorising the countries and capitals of the world - my reflection

Earlier this year I set myself the goal of being able to recall the names of all the countries of the world and their capitals. There are two parts of this project.  The first is to be able to recite the names of the countries in sequence, and the second is to recall the capital of a given country. In addition, I should be able to recall the country when given a capital city.

My approach to memorising this project and the lessons learnt are described in this article.

1. I created a list of country names and capitals in an Excel spreadsheet. This information was sourced from the World Guide reference book.

2. I made a rough division of the world into continents and regions. This created problems as not every reference book classifies the counties so neatly. What are the borders of Europe?  Which countries are in Asia?  I made some mistakes on my virtual journey around Africa as I missed some islands in both the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic ocean.

3. Using a map, I worked out a journey starting in the United Kingom, and hopping from country to country in turn. I then assigned each country a sequence number for the order of memorisation.

4. I used the number peg system to associate a number to a country. Because there are over 200 countries, and my peg system consists of 100 pegs, I added colour to my pegs to create a new set of number pegs from 100 to 999. The first 100 pegs are red, the second 100 are green, the third hundred are blue.

In hindsight, the colours were sometimes difficult to recall and I should have used more action or involving the senses for example, icy cold, windy, and burning hot.

5. Now I had a list of coloured peg numbers, countries and capitals to learn. The list begins with the United Kingdom:
  • 101    United Kingdom - London
  • 102    Ireland - Dublin
  • 103    Portugal - Lisbon
  • 104    Spain - Madrid
  • 105    Andorra - Andorra la Vella
  • 106    France - Paris
  • 107    Luxembourg - Luxembourg
  • 108    Monaco - Monaco
  • 109    Belgium - Brussels
  • 110    Netherlands - Amsterdam
6. The memorisation process involves creating a strong mental image between the coloured peg word and the country. In addition I needed to create an association between the country and the capital.

I made small cardboard flashcards with the number on one side and the country and capital on the back. I took around 20 cards and a pencil with me on my daily walk to create vivid images.  Some of my early images were not too good but I got better as my imagination became wilder with practice.

Here are my first ten peg numbers (based on the Major System).
  1. tie
  2. Noah
  3. ma
  4. Ra
  5. law
  6. shoe
  7. key
  8. ivy
  9. bee
  10. toes
Mental images and associations can be wild, sexy, and maybe offensive to some people. Let your imagination go wild as you are under no obligation to explain your images to other people.  These are my images:

1 red tie -> United Kingdom - London A group of three KINGS have been tied up with a RED TIE but they are puffing up their lungs/chests (LONDON)

2 red Noah -> Ireland - Dublin a red faced Noah is drinking double-sized (DUBLIN) Guinness with a short leprechaun.  (This image is sufficient to prompt my recall of Ireland since I know that Dublin is the capital of Ireland)

3 red ma -> Portugal - Lisbon - a large black woman (Mama) is sitting on the Porch (PORTUGAL) of her house and cuddling her Lesbian (LISBON) lover.

4 red Ra -> Spain - Madrid. A red Pharaoh (my image of Ra) is sailing down the Nile waving a Spanner (SPAIN) and shouting loudly because he is MAD.

5 red law -> Andorra - Andorra la Vella. A red faced lawyer is banging the door (ANDORRA) which bursts open onto a large valley (Andorra La Vella)

6 red shoe -> France - Paris - a red shoe is kicking a soccer ball into the Arc de Triophe in Paris and hitting the red, white and blue French flag.

7 red key -> Luxembourg - Luxembourg. A large red key is pushed into a large cake of LUX soap (an Australian brand of soap) which is between two large hamburger buns (LUX + HAMBURGER). Because I didn't add any more imagery, I know that the capital city is the same name.

8 red ivy -> Monaco - Monaco. A large piece of red ivy is draped around the neck of a MONK.

9 red bee -> Belgium - Brussels. An enormous red bee is stinging a luscious Belgiuan chocolate which is surrounded by Brussel Sprouts (BRUSSELS).

10 red toes -> Netherlands - Amsterdam. A foot with red painted toes is pushing into a wooden clog which in turn is kicking a hamster (Amsterdam) into a large net (Netherlands) draped over water (next to a dyke).

7. Testing and Review

I used the Mnemosyne Spaced Repetion flashcard software (Mnemosyne is free software and runs on Windows, Mac and Linux) to test my recall. The program displays a card with the number, I recall the country and capital, then show the answer.  The program schedules the card for future review based on how I rated my recall.

Once I remembered a country I removed the card from the paper card collection and added more cards.

8. Countries and Territories.

As I memorised the islands of Africa and South America I encounted territories of other countries. Do I memorise these or not?  I decided to remember most of the territories and to identify them I included the image of a terrier dog.  For example, Montserrat is a British Territory with capital of Plymouth. The peg number is 302 which is a Blue Noah. My memory image is a blue-faced Noah chasing a Monster Rat (Montserrat) who is also being chased by a terrier dog with a plum in its mouth (Plymouth).

9. Continents to Country link

Towards the end of my memorisation project I realised I didn't have a means to recall the first country in my sequence for a particular continent.

I created a list of continents with the peg number for the first country in sequence. I converted the number into an image using the Major system then built an association.

Europe - 100 - Daisies
Eastern Europe - 145 - Trolley / Trowel
Middle East - 150 Tiles
Asia - 164 Teacher (in an indian classroom)
SE Asia 177 - hat cock (rooster)
ASia Pacific - 194  - toe bar
Africa - 216 - Ant - Ouch! bitten by ants
North and Central America - 269 -  nacho bee
South America - 279 - knee cap 
Caribbean - 293 - napalm

If I want to recall the countries of Africa, I think of the ants biting (ouch!), convert this to 216 which is green tissue. My key image is the pyramids (Egypt) covered in green tissue paper with cars (Cairo) driving down the sides of the pyramids. I can now continue in sequence, recalling the country associated with 217, 218 and so on.

10. Mistakes

After I memorised the countries of Africa it was pointed out to me I had omitted two islands. I had to add these countries on to the existing peg. For example, I omitted Seychelle (capital Victoria) so I added it to the peg for Comoros (Moroni). Now my mental image was a cormorant with a green mace (key word for 230) in its beak with a moron hanging on to mace. The moron is wearing a necklace of sea-shells with a picture of Queen Victoria.

11. Capitals to Countries.

Since I had the country and capital information in a spreadsheet, I imported the capital to country data into Mnemosyne for additional testing. I found this is a good way to confim my knowledge of the countries.

12. Lessons learnt

I use Mnemosyne daily to review my Country/Capital cards. My recall of some countries is still weak but I do know the information and Mnemosyne is helping me push the information into long term memory. It is important to review daily and Mnemosyne is the most time efficient method.

When preparing to memorise a large amount of information, I learnt how important it is to compile and check all the details. Then the memorising process can proceed.

Some of my 100 peg words didnt have strong images and these got changed during the course of this project. For example, ball is not a strong image for 95, but bull is more memorable. I used to use FAB (the washing powder) for 89 but I also use vibe (vibraphone). I have found it is possible to remember multiple keywords for the number pegs without becoming confusing.

Mnemosyne (when used daily) is a great way to assess how fast it is possible to memorise a lot of information. I only worked on creating associations on my weekends or an occasional lunchbreak, but I used Mnemosyne almost daily for review. Often I would be frustrated at how I had forgotten things, and sometimes I would refine the image to help my recall.

I also learnt how to convert very difficult words into something memorable. For example:
  • Equatorial Guinea - A guinea pig running around the Earth's equator
  • Burkina Farso - a fat lady wearing a bikini (Bikini Fatso)
  • Liberia (capital Monrovia) used the image of a group of choir boys from Libera driving the Moon Rover. 
  • Senegal (Dakar) - a man waving his pants ("Daks") at a flock of seagulls.
Click on the picture below to show the information I have memorised.

More information:


  1. This is really impressive. I'd like to do something similar myself. Now that you've gotten this notch in your belt, what's next? Might I offer human anatomy as a suggestion? :)

  2. That's a good suggestion...understanding the "world" of our bodies and the various systems - bones, muscles, systems (digestive, lymphatic, circulatory), the brain and so on.

  3. As a teacher, I tell students to learn world capitals by going over them many times. Now, I also made these flashcards for them to try and learn them easier. Its quite simple to create these flashcards even for a technology newbie like me!

  4. Hi there!
    great job!
    any chance you could share your country - capital list with your associations with me?

  5. I know all the countries, capitals and flags of all 195 countries of the world. It took me a about 3 days each. I really didn't need this kind of complicated system of memorialization. I used a quiz site called sporcle.com. This is no plug for the site. I just started by learning each continent's countries, took each quiz several times until I got them memorized then moved on to the next continent. Once I was sure I knew every country for that continent, I just moved on to the next one until I was sure enough to take on the entire world. I would say about 10-12 tries got them in my head for good. I did the same for capitals and flags. It's now a game when ever I meet people and they try and stump me which keeps me from forgetting. I find that people are very impressed but in reality, I think anyone with a decent memory and the willingness to try can do this.

  6. hey there.
    Im now searching already made excel with flags and capitals, so i came here. You mentioned that you made one.
    Can you please share it with others or send it to my email - paulsb@inbox.lv

    I will be very thankful :)

  7. Here is my idea for going about this project:

    1) Decide how many continents there are. I would say there are 7. Use the journey method to create 7 separate journeys.
    2) Decide how many countries there are in each continent. Each journey must consist of as many stages as there are countries in that continent.
    3) Two tips: (a) make your journey resemble the real journey around the continents; (b) each journey should be themed so you know which continent it corresponds to.
    4) At each stage of the journey you place your mental image linking together the country and its capital.

    This system is superior as:
    1) it does away with the colours you mentioned
    2) you don't need to add any extra details from the major system
    3) you will know which continent any country is in
    4) the journey will help you remember the location of a country in relation to its neighbouring countries.
    5) the journey method is the best memory system.

  8. Hey Guys!!!!! i know All countries capital,currency,area.
    You can add me as your friend.or follow me on FB ....gdverma8786@gmail.com.I'll wait for your request.

  9. Thank u so much for having such a nice and entertaing stuff for us. I really enjoy your blog and the way you have describe your content.I also have some amazing and wonderful stuff and i wana to share it with you.
    World Records List

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Are you looking for where to buy hemp oil in Australia? Visit Ricks Hemp Oil store to choose from a premium organic range of hemp seed oil products today!
    CBD Oil Tamworth
    CBD Oil Traralgon – Morwell
    CBD Oil Orange