If You’re Not Memorizing, You’re Not Paying Attention


I was just reading an article in the latest National Geographic magazine about memory. It is an interesting article as a whole, but more importantly it really got me thinking about the role of memorization in education. The article talks about the times before easily available printed material, when most everything had to be memorized if it was to be accessed at some future date. One sentence in particular really struck me – it’s actually a quote from the author of The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture .



“In a world of few books, and those mostly in communal libraries, one’s education had to be remembered, for one could never depend on having continuing access to specific material.” (Mary Carruthers, in National Geographic Magazine, November 2007)

It is my understanding that to this day, memorization of texts is still a valued (and even expected) component of Chinese medical education in China. All of my professors that learned the medicine mostly or entirely in China can recite maddening amounts of text verbatim from many classical texts. Additionally, they have memorized uncountable phrases, rhymes and poems used as mnemonic devices for various types of information.

It’s amazing, quite frankly. We’ve had a few conversations in classes about this subject. One generalization I’ve heard is that for the Chinese, memorizing the material is primary and you are not expected to form opinions about it until you’ve had it in your memory for some time. The idea, I think, is that having the information coded in your head allows you to make connections between that text or information and other texts you are reading as well as between the texts and your clinical experiences. If you don’t have that information ready at hand – er, mind – then you’re not going to be able to make those connections as easily if at all.

There’s a serious amount of resistance to this notion among most US-based Chinese medicine and acupuncture students I am acquainted with. Most of us know that we need to memorize things in order to pass tests – but few people seem to see solid memorization of material (and continued renewal of that memorized material to keep it solid) as a foundational aspect of their educational program.

The first year of study at my school doesn’t involve much memorization. It’s mostly about acquainting students with the cultural and philosophical foundations of the medicine, while getting their feet wet with basic Western and Chinese medicine concepts. There are few tests of one’s mental rigor, though lots of great intellectual growth takes place regardless. The second year, then, is a rude awakening for most students. It’s then that we take points, herbs, Chinese pathology and more Western medicine. Nearly all the classes have testing, and one professor in particular is notorious for his frequent (very frequent) testing and exacting standards. Many students fail his first midterm.

People underestimate the amount of information they will need to memorize VERBATIM. Many of them complain about what they see as “rote” memorization, they fail to see the value of this kind of learning for their future career. These folks and, I think, American culture in general puts a much stronger value on analysis of information and the formation of opinions and judgments. In my school in particular, I think folks tend to have a pretty philosophical frame of mind and thus are constantly trying to see patterns and interconnections among the various pieces of information. Education in some way is seen as a creative pursuit.

In my experience, it is only information that I have thoroughly committed to memory that is actually useful to me in the higher order creative activities I’m describing. The absolute base for this process is simple memorization. Information must be placed in the memory and repeatedly accessed until it becomes as familiar as all of the television commercial jingles we all undoubtedly have memorized.

You might object, saying that you cannot retain material that doesn’t have relevance, material that doesn’t MEAN anything to you, yet. It’s true that it is difficult to commit something to memory that you have no context for, it is NOT true for any of us that this material we are studying has no context in our experience. While you may not know much about, say, 茯苓(Fu Ling, poria) with a little effort you can most certainly associate it with aspects of your experience.

By studying a little about the applications of the herb you can help relate it to your life, perhaps with a time that you suffered from excess dampness. Also, there are numerous memorization techniques that help you build an infrastructure in which you can place any amount of seemingly meaningless information. When you do this, and do it well, it will begin to seep into your entire being and you will begin to understand.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on memorization in Chinese medicine. What role has it played in your education?

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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