A wallet seed (aka “mnemonic phrase”) is a word list that generates the private keys for a deterministic wallet. If your plans include saving significant quantities of bitcoin, creating a reliable seed backup should be your first priority. This post shows how to take your backup strategy one step further.
Wallet seeds vary in length, but 12 words is typical. Conventional wisdom says to write the seed on a piece of paper, then store the paper in a secure location. Should you lose your ability to spend from your hardware or software wallet, the backup can be used to regenerate it.
Why You Should Memorize Your Wallet Seed
Creating a physical backup is a good first step toward securing your savings. But a physical backup is only useful if you can get your hands on it when the time comes. Some situations will make this impossible.
For example, imagine getting a call at work that your house is on fire. You immediately think of your paper backup, stored under a loose floorboard in the downstairs closet. By the time you make it home, nothing is left but cinders. Your backup, along with any chance you may have had to recover your bitcoin, is gone. Various solutions to this problem have been proposed (fireproof safe, engraved steel backup), each with tradeoffs.
A physical backup doesn’t need to be destroyed to be rendered useless. Consider what would happen if something prevented you from accessing your backup. Maybe it’s a natural disaster such as flood or earthquake. Maybe you find yourself stranded in a foreign country. Maybe you need to leave your home at a moment’s notice due to emergency.
Memorization solves these problems. A memorized wallet seed can’t be destroyed by fire (for most purposes) or rendered unavailable by distance from a physical location.
You may have rejected the idea of memorization as impractical. Indeed, memorizing 12 random words will be impossible - unless you have a system. This article presents one.
The Link Method (also known as “chain method” or “mnemonic link system”) is a technique used to memorize lists of words. Originally developed for memorizing things such as shopping lists, the Link Method can readily be adapted to memorizing a wallet seed.
In the link method, each list word is visualized and associated in some way with its successor. The result is a chain of mental images, each one leading to the next.
Many sources recommend visualizing each word in an outlandish, emotional way. For example, the word might be “cat.” Instead of picturing a standard house cat, picture a mountain lion, claws extended, mouth agape, and eyes fixed, ready to pounce on you.
Most of the link method tutorials I’ve found imply that memorization should be done in one sitting. This didn’t work for me.
However, I did come up with a variation that works better.
Step 1: Build a Scene or Story
The following list represents a typical wallet seed:
mansion nice pigeon dry style list about ring stamp derive slam drastic
If you’d like a dummy wallet seed to practice, check out Coinomi’s Mnemonic Code Coverter. However, a production seed should only be generated on a secure offline device.
Using your word list, build a story or scene. The goal isn’t to get you on Oprah’s Book Club, but to create something that will be memorable. Preserve the word order, and make your creation as extreme or absurd as you can bear. An image or video search might help to get the ideas flowing.
Here’s a scene I created using the sample wallet seed:
A run-down mansion stands in the nice part of town. An old man feeds a flock of carnivorous pigeons dry salami from his porch while reading an old copy of Style Magazine. A list of top shoulder pad tips for 1988 appears on the left-hand page. On the right-hand page is an article about matching your wardrobe to your engagement ring. A stamp is glued to the center of the man’s forehead. It depicts Eratosthenes, the Greek philosopher who derived the circumference of the Earth. In front of the man is a table on which his breakfast sits: a Grand Slam from Denny’s. The pigeons have been eyeing the breakfast, but one of them harbors more drastic thoughts.
This could take some time. Certain words in common word lists are especially hard to picture at all or place into a scene. For example, I had to stretch with the words “about”, “slam,” and “drastic.”
As you practice, you may find versions of your scene that work better. Go with the flow. For example, as I was working with my story, I noticed that the words “style list about ring” produced a mental image. This allowed me to trim the scene down:
A run-down mansion stands in the nice part of town. An old man feeds a flock of carnivorous pigeons dry salami from his porch while reading an old copy of Style Magazine. It’s open to a top-ten list about engagement ring mistakes. A stamp is glued to the center of the man’s forehead. It depicts Eratosthenes, the Greek philosopher who derived the circumference of the Earth. In front of the man is a table on which his breakfast sits: a Grand Slam from Denny’s. The pigeons have been eyeing the breakfast, but one of them harbors more drastic thoughts.
Step 2: Divide
I tried memorizing the entire word list in one go, but found it very difficult. What worked better was to break the list into three lists of four words each:
- mansion nice pigeon dry
- style list about ring
- stamp derive slam drastic
Step 3: Conquer
Dedicate the next three days to memorization. Here was my agenda:
- Day 1. Create a scene/story and memorize the first four words.
- Day 2. Repeat the first four words from memory then memorize the next four.
- Day 3. Repeat the first eight words from memory then memorize the last four.
I found it helpful to spread about five memorization sessions of about 10-minutes each throughout the day. Each session began by picturing the relevant part of the scene mentally. Then I’d try to recite the words. Reviewing the story was sometimes necessary. Several times throughout the day I’d pause to repeat the day’s words silently to myself.
You may be tempted to change your word list to make memorization easier. Don’t. People are universally bad at choosing randomness. Don’t be another brain wallet disaster.
Instead, use your brain’s natural ability to form associations between random pieces of information - your wallet seed in this case.
Memorizing your wallet seed shouldn’t take the place of keeping a durable backup in a secure location. Instead, think of memorization as the ultimate insurance policy against the worst case scenario in which you physical backup can’t be used.
Memorizing a 12-word wallet seed using the Link Method was easier than I thought it would be. But I noticed that my recall ability faded after a few weeks without repetition. If you’re going to take the trouble to memorize your wallet seed, be prepared to keep practicing over a long period of time.