“Storing your bitcoin in your head” is a sublime experience, but many people don’t memorise their 12 or 24 word Bitcoin seed phrase. The three commonest reasons I have heard are:
- It’s too hard
- I don’t trust myself. What if I forget, won’t I lose my Bitcoin?
- $5 wrench attack
Answer to 1 — No it’s not too hard, ANYONE can do it, if you know how. I’ll show you how in this article.
Answer to 2 — memorising is in ADDITION to storing a physical copy, not replacing it. This way if your physical copy is lost or destroyed, you have a copy in your memory. Or, if your memory fails you, you have a physical copy.
Answer to 3 — For those who don’t know, this refers to being extorted violently with a $5 wrench (or another weapon, or blackmailed even) to give up your seed. While this is a risk, you at least have the option to relinquish one or all of your wallets to save your life. The way to counter this attack is preparation… and don’t flaunt your wealth, and it is advisable to not advertise that your seed has been memorised. To fully counter the $5 wrench attack, you must relinquish control of your seed, whether it is a single seed or the crucial final seed in a multi-signature wallet. These are the two extremes: have access to your seed and be at risk to extortion, or give up control and trust a 3rd party. Even if you trust a third party, there is still some risk in a ransom/blackmail situation. And even if you don’t memorise your seeds (but have access to them), you are at risk of extortion. Basically, as long as you have some way of spending using your keys, there is a way you can potentially be extorted. A middle ground might be to have access without a 3rd party controlling a crucial key, but make it a long process to spend; perhaps store the keys in different locations requiring some travel. This makes an attack difficult and slower.
Background to memorisation
I am not gifted in memorising; but I have developed my own highly tuned techniques over the last 22 years. I hacked my memory, and I will share with you all what I have discovered.
During my medical school years, memorising a vast amount of facts was crucial to succeeding. It spurred me to find ways of memorising. I was terrible at first but was always improving, helped by studying memorising techniques. Over the years I incorporated techniques from others and developed my own. This article is an exploration of parts of what I have learned, and applied to memorising Bitcoin seed phrases.
I have divided my system into principles which I will go through individually. On their own, they are not too special, but all combined together, it is very powerful:
Associations with creativity and weirdness
Use an imaginative and creative visualisation (in your mind) of an item being memorised. The more creative, the more outrageous, the easier to remember. That’s an important point. The brain takes shortcuts and ignores the boring and expected. If you visualise something boring, you’ll forget it. If it’s ridiculous, different, disgusting, impossible, out of the ordinary, induces an emotion etc, you’ll remember it more easily.
For example, if you were shown a piece of paper for 5 seconds…
… you are likely to recall (in the short term) that there were lots of red dots and one blue dot, but you would also probably recall the general position of the blue dot on the page without trying, but not the red dots. Because the blue dot stands out. Your brain takes shortcuts in summarising the data.
If you are memorising something that blends with everything else, has no particular relevance or interest, is not out of the ordinary, you need a lot of effort to remember it. If you need to memorise something boring, then use your imagination to make that boring thing unusual and interesting, while still retaining its important properties to help you remember what it is. A pencil is boring. A pencil violently shoved up someone’s nose is not. It stands out. A pencil shoved up a person’s nose who you dislike… getting better. A pencil shoved up a person’s nose who you love and care about… maximum emotion and memorability. Use with caution. But isn’t that an interesting way to remember a such a simple thing as a pencil?
So to memorise a boring object, such as a pencil, you MAKE it interesting, with creativity. If YOU create it, your are more likely to remember it. The more detail the better. You can imagine the pencil’s smell, the sound it makes when you snap it, the splinter it gave you as you were shoving it up that nose. Combining all these things is quite powerful. If you take a moment to visualise this scene (although, I created it not you, so it’s not as effective), there is no way you’ll forget that pencil tomorrow.
Sometimes you want to memorise a word that is not an object. You need to still visualise something creative that reminds you of that word. It doesn’t have to be completely unambiguous; sometimes it’s not possible, but unambiguity helps. Perhaps you could use something that rhymes with the word. Or rhymes with part of the word. Or the word might sound like something else. Or maybe your remember an actor saying the word in a Movie and that actor reminds you of the word. There are many creative ways you could come up with something. You might have to use three or four different ambiguous things that hint at the word, but all of those things combine can remove the ambiguity. And because you created it, it’s easier to know what you meant.
Let’s pick a word that is not a noun. Usually that’s much harder to memorise. Let’s use “important”. To create associations, I can find some nouns that point to how the word sounds. Eg, imp, port, ant. I could use one, two or three of these and combine them to make a scene. I could use the meaning of the word important to be in that scene as well. I can find some other nouns if needed using rhyme. Lots of different clues I can add all pointing, eventually unambiguously, to the word “important”. Eg. imagine an imp, getting drunk on an oversized bottle of port, dressed in official robes feeling very important, stepping on an unimportant ant, which begins to swell to the imp’s size and strips off the imps robes and wears them. It’s at your discretion if you want the imp to pirouette as his robes are being yanked. A totally crazy scene, but I won’t confuse what word I’m trying to memorise. By the way, while writing this, I came back 2 days later to continue, and had no trouble remembering this creative scene and the word.
Another useful tool is Google Images. Google the word “important”. Then click ‘images’. What comes up a lot is an exclamation mark. That’s a great association I didn’t think of earlier. I could have used that in the scene, or used the exclamation mark alone; but maybe with one other hint, to not confuse it with the word “shout”
Put items on the map
When memorising an item, it is more easily recalled (and counted) if it has a place in the visual space of your mind. For example you probably know which pieces of furniture are in which rooms of your house. If you scanned the layout of your house in your mind, you’d know how many desks you have and where they are. You probably know this detail without ever trying to memorise it. We can use this ability to our advantage:
If you took each of the rooms of your house, the layout of which you know well (if it’s a new house, imagine another house you knew well), you could use your imagination, and place an item (using principle 1), one in each room of the house. Each of these items are memorable in themselves, but now they are in familiar places. And they have a spatial relationship to each other. You could imagine walking around the house, and visit each room, and see (remember) what your imagination put there. (This is a good start, but I’ll show how to improve it later)
The rooms are just one possibility. You could actually use anything. Let’s do a quick example.
Imagine I wanted to remember to make a phone call today, and needed to buy milk. This is not too hard to remember anyway, but let’s keep it simple for now.
I could imagine my bedroom, imagine myself shaking out the blankets of the bed and hundreds of mobile telephones could be falling out of the blanket coverings and ringing all at once creating a very annoying noise (very weird but effective). Then for the milk I could imagine my bedroom door, with milk pouring out of the door handle and spilling on the floor, smelling, and being slippery. The milk could creep towards the mobile phones on the floor and cause electrical sparks. (Making the two items interact helps a lot. And you really need to spend a bit of time “indulging” in the imagination as an observer, not just stopping after creating it.)
Both of these things are weird, and I’m likely to remember what I need to do for the day if I chose to think of my “list”. If i just imagined a telephone sitting on the bed (boring), and a carton of milk by the door (boring), I might still remember, but it’s not as memorable compared to adding the creativity and strangeness.
Memorising this way for a simple to do list is overkill, too much effort, but it works. Stick with me, and remember we are working towards Bitcoin seeds. Back to the example.
Apart from the strangeness, another important thing is that these items in the list had a location. And, they were related to each other in imaginary space. From my viewpoint where I was standing in the room, one item is on the left (door) and the other is on the right. Two things. There is no possibility that I might think there is a third or fourth item, or mix what is on the left and what is on the right, or confuse where I was standing. If there were three items, I would see them related to each other in a triangular way, not left and right. If there were four items, there’d be a rectangular shape to the four items’ location. Your brain won’t confuse a rectangle with a triangle or a straight line, and so it will easily recall the number of items. If you had 3 items on the left and 3 on the right (like 6 on a die), your brain will remember the left vs right balance and shape.
By noticing the spatial relationship, you remember the number of items.
When it starts getting too complicated, it’s time to start filling up another room. Eg a square (4 items) in the room, one outside the room — a kite shape (diamond/square inside the room, with a line connecting to the outside). If you had 3 full rooms, you could notice the relationship of the three rooms, a triangle, and remember there are 3 rooms with stuff in them.
Many days later after writing this, I came back to continue, and again, had remembered the phones and the milk that I memorised. I didn’t particularly want to keep it in my memory, it just happened. Several further days when I came back, I had forgotten. Why? Because I used the same room to memorise a different set of items for another reason. (I know this damages the previous memory, but I was OK with that.) Be careful not to re-use your spaces if you care about the items you put in there; your brain will get confused. Instead, use other spaces. I even used street intersections around my neighbourhood when I was studying for my oncology exams. Even a decade later, when I drive passed that street, I think, “oh, I remember, this is where I memorised Thyroid cancer… follicular, papillary, and anaplastic variants”. And sometimes when I think of Lung cancer, and the things I tried to memorise, I recall the front yard of my old piano teacher. It goes both ways.
Depending of the volume of things you are trying to memorise, your real life places might start getting clogged up. No problem! Just imagine up new worlds. The locations you store your items don’t have to be real places. Like a computer game creator, make them up. Start your first item anywhere: a beach, an office, a football pitch, and give it detail and expand it as you add things. When you read a book, you are imagining a scene as you read. You are probably creating a location too. So, you know how to do it. You could even use scenes from books you’ve read.
This expansion of locations is good for studying specialist medical exams, but not required for our purposes (5 or 6, twelve word Bitcoin seed phrases) — it was just to make a point. You’ll have plenty of locations you can tap into for your Bitcoin seeds. (Yes, you should memorise more than 1 for a multi-signature wallet).
If you wanted to memorise, in addition to the items themselves, the sequence of items, then some linking is useful.
You could visualise yourself being inside the imaginary world, and “look” at each item in a particular order, and try to remember that, but there is a better way.
As you are adding items to the list, you can link them together. For example in the earlier 2-item list in the bedroom, you visualise yourself at the bed, phones dropping to the floor, you hear the ringing. You see the milk coming from the left, and soaking the phones (a link). You turn and see where the milk is coming from. You might then walk over and try to plug the leak and the door comes loose and falls outward. Maybe the fall can crush your next item on list? (link). Maybe it just falls to the floor and splashes milk in the direction of your next item. The possibilities are endless.
Just be careful not to reuse a space. For example, you wouldn’t want the door collapsing into a pile of dust and the dust turning into something. It’s taking up the same space as the door and ruins your relationships in 3D space. You wouldn’t be able to quickly glance around and observe where everything is; instead you’d need to play out the movies in your mind to know what is where and that is very inefficient. If you wanted to do something like that, the dust pile from the door needs to be moved over slightly at least, so you can see a line from the phones to the door, to the next item, and your “eye” can follow it. you also don’t want to be going back and forth too much and crossing lines.
Indulge in the imagination
Stagger your revision
The purpose of adding things to places in your mind is to quickly first be able to add things to your SHORT TERM MEMORY in a reliable way. Over time, the memory will decay. But each time you revise it, the memory returns to full strength, BUT, the next decay will be slower. Guess what happens if you let this happen again and again? The decay will eventually be negligible. In order for the memory to become “permanent” (LONG TERM MEMORY), it needs to be revised. Not many times at once, but many times over a period of time. The repetition must be spaced out. Revising 10 times all at once, is not as good as revising once a day for 10 days. Keeping something, and revising something, in your short term memory for longer, allows your brain to physically adapt; to make neural connections, so the memory may become long-term.
This is also true for physical memory, eg learning a piece of music on an instrument — 10 minutes practice once per day for 10 days is more effective to memorise or learn a technically difficult passage, compared to 100 minutes of practice in one day. I speak from experience.
The final goal is to forget the mnemonic (memory aid) and just know what you’ve memorised. You don’t sing a little ditty every time you want to remember your left vs right. Or, a musician doesnt think “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit” to read the treble clef. They just know how to read. I would hope you don’t think “i before e except after c” any more; you just know how to spell “receive”
So to it should be with your Bitcoin seed. In the end, you want to be able to recite the words in your head effortlessly without needing the images.
The way to do this is to regularly revise in your head, without using the images (only after you’ve secured the memory though). Every now and then, maybe weekly, revisit the images — I’ll show you a trick for this later.
EXAMPLE: memorising a random Bitcoin seed
Here are 12 words from a random BIP39 seed generator. I will select the very first set, no cheating to pick easy ones (promise)…
From — https://iancoleman.io/bip39/
I selected “12” from the drop down menu, and while the computer was disconnected from the internet, I clicked “generate”, then wrote the words down, and closed the browser. (There are safer ways to generate seeds, eg. using a hardware wallet).
After generating the words, the first thing I do is group them into 4 sets of triplets as shown below — unless there is a matching pair of words I want to keep in a group.
feel reason afford
obtain amused brick
put blouse expire
steel doll salt
Results of my brainstorm: I think of the first word, FEEL, and some associations, and I’m considering a location. A scene from Seinfeld — “what is that velvet?”; another scene with Elaine and J Peterman, “this innocent looking shirt has something that isn’t innocent at all — touchability.”
There is a possibility of “touchability” causing confusion. I might remember the word “touch” instead of “feel”. “Feelings” can be used?; “Peel” rhymes with “feel”, that can reduce ambiguity with “touch”.
That’s enough material. Now to create something.
I will use Elaine placed in Seinfeld’s apartment, in the kitchen, wearing the white blouse, wrapped in a giant long strip of orange peel, spiralling around her – she struggles to untangle from it. I can smell the orange. The old Jewish character I remember from a scene in one particular Seinfeld episode, feels the peel instead of helping her untangle, and asks, “what is that, velvet?” Elaine is angry.
This scene might seem elaborate and overly detailed. This is ideal. It is not completely unambiguous because the word is not a noun so it’s harder to visualise an object. An action is more ambiguous than an object. But it’s good enough, and it won’t be forgotten. There is a risk it can be confused with peel, but then the man feeling the peel, and Elaine in the scene reduces that risk. Also there will be revision.
There is also has a starting location. Next word.
REASON. Rhymes with treason and season; “reason to live” and suicide, and suicide note; “reasonable” ; “give me one good reason”; I was struggling with this one, and took a break. Came back next day. Was getting tired.
“rice” “son”; Daniel San. Mr Miagi from Karate Kid.
On Seinfeld’s couch, sits Mr Miagi. The man next to Elaine walks over to Mr Miagi. Miagi “rises” from the chair, the floats in the air, and turns a bowl of steamed hot rice in his hand over on the man’s head and presses it down. He says “Rice, Daniel san” … Rice San … Reason. Miagi is drunk, depressed and crying. He feels he has no reason to live. He uses his sword to commit suicide.
There’s a lot of details in here. It might seem unnecessary. But it needs to be strange and not boring. It needs to be very unusual.
AFFORD. This one is easier. Ford. Ford Fairlane (the movie, and the car). How does Seinfeld afford that apartment? (This might seem like a good association, but it’s not unusual enough — I wont use it). Mr Miagi is dead, bleeding on the couch, I need to link something with that. Something by the door so the word after that can be away from this room, it’s getting cluttered.
Kramer usually barges in through that door. I’ll make Ford from the movie drive through the door, crashing in, in a Ford Fairlane, walk to Miagi and retrive the sword from his body. It’s a long shiny sword, with a jeweled hilt. Diamonds. Not easy to afford.
OBTAIN. Geez, I really wished I picked a set of 12 words with more Nouns. YOU can, but I’m sticking to this. “Obs” are what nurses take for patients (temperature, blood pressure, respiratory rate, heart rate etc — obs stand for observations); This one is a bit harder. Google image search was unhelpful. Second half of the word, “tain”, means nothing. Rhyming… I can use “nursing obs” with the most interesting and unambiguous word that rhymes with obtain. “stain” “plain” “grain” “billy zane” “train” “shame” “claim” “drain” “john wayne” “spain” “the rain in spain” “McCain” “Bob Jane” — Bob Jane actually sounds a bit like obtain. Using it.
Ford reverses his car out of the apartment. I can make up any world I like outside Seinfeld’s apartment. As Ford reverses the car, he enters a car elevator, goes down, drives east with flat tyres, to Bob Jane Tyre Mart. The mechanics connect the car to various wires hooked to mechanic diagnostic machines — like how a nurse connects up a patient to an obs machine. Need to add some interest and detail: the connections are doing something to the car, its getting bigger, and the tyres are becoming massive. It turns into a monster truck.
That’s enough of a demonstration. I think you get the idea.
FEEL, REASON, AFFORD, OBTAIN. It seems like a lot of effort for these four words, but the purpose is not so the effort is minimal; The purpose is so you can have confidence you will remember it.
With these images, these scenes, you need to spend time, not just figuring out what word they represent, but “indulging” in visualising it. Actually spend time observing: The man feeling Elaine’s orange peel; Look at the peel, notice its detail, its smell; notice what the man looks like, his clothes; notice Elaine’s anger etc.
Also observe the shape of the items in relation to each other. You can notice that in Seinfeld’s apartment, there is a triangle shape from the kitchen, to the couch to the door. And a long line from there, east, to Bob Jane Tyre Mart. Move your visual eye to the sky and look down, and you see this shape:
The arrows indicate the order, but you don’t actually “see” the arrows; just the shape.
Take your time. You can spend days on this if you want, a few words a day, then 10 minutes a day visualising your creation. Once you’ve done it, you’ll notice it is a bit slow retrieving the words from your memory. That’s ok, the purpose isn’t speed, it’s security. The more memory tricks you rely on retrieve a word, the slower the retrieval will be. Using it frequently helps you “just remember” and skip using the memory aid. But how can you use it frequently? You don’t want to be entering the words into your wallet over and over; that’s not safe. This is what I found really useful:
Take the first letter of each word and make a string of letters. In the 12 word example I used, it would be:
F R A O B P B E S D S
Now, think of a computer account you frequently enter your password for. It could be your bank account password or your work computer or home computer. Change your password to this 12 letter string. Add a number, capital letter, or special character if you are forced to eg “fRaoabpbesds1$”. Don’t write this down anywhere. Perhaps you can write it as a code, such as “Banking password = sEcret1$”
Then, every time you enter your password (possibly daily), you revise the words in your mind, and type out the password at the same time. Do not memorise the string, that would defeat the purpose. Say the words in your mind, and extract from the word the first letter and type your password. Soon, you’ll be able to say the words in your head quite quickly, and it will be like a poem or song lyrics without the music — this is why I grouped the words into triplets earlier. Each of the 3 words will sound correct only in the right order, because you NEVER recite them out of order. The wrong order will sound foreign, and the right order will sound familiar.
Then, you’ll be able to do it without the memory aid. But every now and then, revise your memory aid — you don’t want to use the memory aid all the time, but you actually don’t want to lose it either; it helps secure the words.
After several weeks, generate another seed and do it again, then again until you have 5 seeds.
Then you are ready to add funds to your 3 or 5 multi-signature wallet (after you have written down and stored your seed phrases in 5 different secret locations, and after you have formed a plan on how your bequeathed will access it.)
I would not recommend many more seeds, partly because you’ll start coming across recurring words and could confuse yourself, and partly because it is exhausting, and partly because there isn’t a need — you can create more wallets by adding additional words to any seed (passphrase), which generates a completely unique key.
Principle 1 — Associations with creativity and weirdness
Principle 2 — Put items on the map
Principle 3 — Use Links
Principle 4 — Indulge in, and stagger your revision.
Principle 5 — Just know
The initials password trick
Now that you know how to memorise it, learn to safely generate a seed.
Ideally, make an air gapped Raspberry Pi Zero computer, instructions here
Then use that computer to safely generate a seed here