Founder’s note: Another great article by Sunjae Lee!
After getting my undergrad degree in chemistry, while working as a chemical engineer I stumbled upon an website online which was an exposition of memory techniques from an anonymous scholar, which has long since been taken down.
I was fascinated by the premise, that great feats of memorization are available to anyone with some practice of a few specific exercises. Indeed, after learning all the techniques, over the course of a couple days I was able to memorize and fluidly recite back more than 300 digits of pi, stunning myself and my family.
A couple years later, as I entered the 6 year dual degree (Chinese medicine and Naturopathic medicine) program at NCNM in Portland OR, I made good use of these techniques, refining them and discarding the ones that didn’t work as well.
This article describes some of the techniques I used in the hopes that they will help others as well; it is not a complete tutorial but rather an introduction to the approach.
Final caveat is that this is strictly about memorization techniques, not necessarily learning or comprehension of material in general, which is a much more personalized and ultimately difficult process.
I like to think of the process of short term memory processing and long term memory consolidation with an analogy: a hunter-gatherer going out each day, pushing around a flat cart along a bumpy road. He picks up things that he wants to bring home and puts them on the cart, but items can quickly slide off, especially when they start to pile up on the limited space on the cart. By the time he gets home, out of the hundreds of things he’s tried to put on the cart, most have fallen off on the side of the road, and he puts the few things that remains into a warehouse, where they can be safely stored.
Eventually, he comes up with an idea to “tie down” items on the cart as he gathers them. After placing each item on the cart, he can secure it with a string and then pile additional items onto the cart. The strings are not strong, and after a certain amount of piling, objects still fall off (or the cart just gets too heavy). Regardless, the amount that the person brings back to store in the warehouse is easily tenfold with this method.
In the analogy, the process of gathering objects onto the cart during the daytime represents storing items in short term memory, and coming back home and putting in the warehouse represents long term memory consolidation during sleep. We all know that our short term memory can only hold so much, and that long term memory is the more useful version when it comes to actually using things from our memory. The main point of the analogy is that long term memorization is nearly impossible without the “tying down” aspect. This seems so simple, but it is overlooked too often, mostly because it seems like unnecessary work.
The tying down in the analogy represents exactly one thing: Association.
In learning new items, the way to tie down the piece of information so that it has a better chance of coming back and being stored in long term memory, is to associate it with something that is already in your consciousness. This is simply the process of “this reminds me of…[fill in the blank]”, and can take many forms, which will be described.
Not to belabor the point, but in my opinion trying to shovel new information into your brain without this step is the same as watching the man put items onto his cart without tying them down, only to have most of them fall off again. [clickToTweet tweet=”#Acupuncture students – how do you approach studying vast amts of info? Here are some ideas…” quote=”Examine your own study habits: when you encounter a piece of information that you are trying to soak in, how do you approach it?”]
When I used to tutor students who had difficulty memorizing, I found that too many people would just stare at the information, repeat out loud, in their head, do everything they can except associating the information with something they already know.
Let’s study some examples.
Let’s say the information you have to memorize is a set of nuclear launch codes, a small set of unintelligible words: wefnjrt coij3 fjnzvi. Ask yourself– what does each word remind you of? It doesn’t matter if it’s related to nuclear launch codes or not.
I’ll pick “Wednesday” for the first, “3 coins” for second, and “Finland” for 3rd in terms of the 3 things that instantly come to my mind the first. This in itself is an important step which begins the “tying down” process because it tells your brain that these items are important enough to be remembered.
The next step is to connect the ideas via a story or scene that you visualize. In this example, connecting nuclear, Wednesday, 3 coins, and Finland, might come up with something like: Every Wednesday each Finnish person needs to donate 3 coins to the anti-nuclear society. Finland has 3 old coins scattered throughout the country that contain nuclear codes but the codes are only visible on Wednesdays. Or a Finnish wedding (“Wednesday”) where a stranger comes to give a gift of 3 coins which end up granting access to a bomb shelter nearby. Anything like that.
This is the process of “encoding”, tying down, and association. However, this is only half the step. Next would be “decoding”- you still need the ability to take the phrase/scene you made up and go back to the original information. Thus, the entire process in short would be:
Associating each item to be memorized with something in your imagination or consciousness already
Connecting the items, if need be, into a scene or story
Decoding the scene or story back into the original information;
Repeating multiple times until decoding process is smooth
At first glance, it might seem that these 4 extra steps are too much work; why not just stare at the information, verbalize it, and let your short term memory do the work? This is exactly the mistake of the man in the analogy who is too lazy to tie down the items onto his cart. The encoding / decoding is signaling to your consciousness that this is information that is valuable enough to be tethered to your consciousness, and therefore is it MUCH more likely to be brought back to your long term memory.
This is the basic process, but there is much more detail that adds to the effectiveness of the technique.
Memorization is a whole field of study, and the styles and techniques that are available are so manifold that it is almost an art form in its own right. In the next article, in just a couple of days, I’ll look into some of these more specific techniques and discuss how it can be used by students of Chinese medicine.