Monday, December 09, 2013

My system for creating and remembering secure passwords: Part 3

In my last two posts, I shared ways to create random and/or complex passwords. Now to a system I have recently discovered for remembering random strings of characters and digits, such as passwords.

A memory technique book I recently read talked about how our brains are wired to remember things in unique ways. This was actually a relief to me. Memorizing a string of random characters and/or numbers and/or symbols, such as what a complex password might comprise, I formerly considered to be an exceedingly arduous task. My brain is just not wired to remember a random password sequence. And I actually think, while some are gifted with so-called "photographic" memories, very few of us have brains that function that way.

But what ARE our brains wired to remember? The book I read pointed out two things our brains are typically wired to remember ... and I fully agree with both:

1) Story. Particularly unique stories with unexpected twists. Most of us can create in our heads (and easily remember) stories that contain unique situations or sequences.

2) Journey. Basically a "journey" is a set of signposts in a sequence, incurred during a journey from point A to point B. For instance, you may frequently take walks around your neighborhood, or drive a long distance to work and back each day, or walk around your place of employment, visiting people in their cubicles. It's interesting that after finding our way the first time, we rarely have any trouble remembering exactly where to turn, how far to go before we turn, etc. You can walk through complex neighborhoods, even through forests where the trees all look quite similar, turning right or left at various landmarks or intersections or other signposts, often without even thinking about it consciously. Except in the forest, perhaps, there's little chance of you getting lost. Most of us remember journey (geography) fairly readily. We take daily journeys without fear of getting lost.

So, what if you were to combine these two types of memory together, in an effort to remember random strings of characters and/or numbers? What do I mean by that?

As an example, let me share how I remember randomly generated passwords. I went to Random.org just now and asked it to generate me a random password, 10 characters in length. It happened to come up with:
  • 2cAutjR3Ut
Before we start our "journey of imagination," let's create a few arbitrary "rules." One rule is that wherever a single-digit number appears in my password sequence, I will associate with that number an object that rhymes with it. For instance:

one = bun
two = shoe
three = tree
four = door
five = hive
six = sticks
seven = heaven
eight = crate
nine = sign
zero = hero

The second rule is that wherever a letter appears, I will associate that letter with a person I know whose first name starts with that letter. In cases where this doesn't work (such as the letter "i" ... I don't think I know anyone whose first name starts with "i") I will use a little imagination ... for instance, I associate the letter "i" with the famous writers' group known as "The Inklings," which was comprised of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others.

The third rule I have is that when a letter is capitalized, I visualize that person wearing a cap of some sort. If the letter is lowercase, I visualize them with head bared. For instance, for "D" I visualize my brother Don, wearing a baseball cap.

So, the next task is to assign each object (representing a number) or person (representing a letter, either wearing a cap or not) to a signpost point in a journey. The journey can be a walk around your neighborhood, or around your workplace. Wherever, just pick something you can visualize in your mind.

So now, it's easy to use our imagination to create a story. The story is a journey, starting at a specified point and ending at a specified point, with the number of signposts or waypoints synchronized to the number of characters you wish to remember. For our 10 character password, I will assign a journey with 10 signposts, and an easy sequence to follow. For instance, our offices at work ...

The first signpost is the first office (on the left, occupied by interns) which you come to as you enter our department. Since our first character is "2," I visualize a lone shoe sitting on the chair in that office, representing the number "2."

The next office on the left is my office. The next letter in the sequence is a lowercase "c." I visualize our cat, whose name is Carmen, sitting on my chair, staring at my "mouse."

The third office is my boss's, Amy. That's easy ... a capital A, so I visualize Amy wearing a baseball cap, sitting at her desk and engaged in deep thought.

The next office (to the left, we are traveling clockwise) is our director's office, Johnny, up against the window. The letter is "u." This creates a bit of a problem, because I don't know anyone personally whose name starts with "u." So, at this point I can either resort to historical figures, such as Ulysses Grant, or celebrities, such as Uma Thurmin. Since our director is male, I choose Ulysses S. Grant, and visualize the famous general sitting at our director's desk, perhaps directing a civil war battle from his laptop ... bareheaded.

Next is "t" ... that's easy. My brother-in-law, Tom. No hat. Sitting in the office to the left of our director. Tom is a soldier, so I visualize him giving Ulysses S. Grant battle advice over the cubicle wall they share.

Next to Tom is our printer room. The letter is "j." My best friend's name is "John." So I visualize John (without a cap), standing in front of the printer, printing out some sort of report of how the battle is going.

Next comes our storage room. My daughter-in-law, Rebecca is standing in there looking through boxes. (She is a school teacher, and she is always shopping for school supplies.) Since it's cold outside and she's just visiting, she's wearing a knitted cap on her head. (The letter is "R".)

In the eighth position we have the number "3." I visualize a tree, growing in our interns' office (which is on the left of our storage room). This is fairly easy to do, since we haven't had an intern in there since summer.

The next waypoint on my journey around the office is an empty cubicle, which used to be occupied by our corporate relations manager. In this office, I visualize Uma Thurmin, with a cap on her head. (Actually, Uma looks a lot like our former Corporate Relations Manager, which makes it easier.)

Finally, we come to our conference room. And sitting at the table is another lowercase "t" ... it seems my brother-in-law, Tom, has finished shouting battle instructions (apparently Ulysses was victorious) and has now moved over to sit at the conference table and enjoy a victor's cup of coffee. And he is still not wearing a cap.

So, now that we have a story, and sequence assigning individuals or objects to various signposts, it just becomes a matter of mentally rehearsing the journey, which you have to do several times ... close your eyes and visualize yourself walking through the office, stopping at each waypoint and observing the item or person there and what they are doing ...

  • 2 - a shoe in the chair in the first office on the left
    c - our cat, Carmen, staring at my computer mouse ... no cap on her head
  • A - My boss, Amy, sitting at her desk wearing a baseball cap
  • u - Ulysses S. Grant, without a cap, sitting in our director's chair
  • t - Tom, without a cap, in the office next to our director
  • j - John, capless, in our printer room
  • R - Rebecca, with a cap on, in our storage room
  • 3 - a tree, growing in our empty intern office
  • U - Uma Thurmin, with a cap on, in the now-empty cubicle
  • t - Tom, capless, sitting at our conference table enjoying victory coffee
Yes, I know this sounds weird/bizarre, but that's one of the things that makes the "story/journey" memorable. The weirder the better! And, if you walk through the location a few times, visualizing the people or objects which represent each number or letter, before long you will easily be able to remember the whole sequence. Soon you will even be able to repeat it without discretely visualizing the weird little "story" you have created.

Do you find it easy to memorize random sequences like this? Do you use a system? Are you willing to try this one? I'd definitely be interested in your feedback!

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