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

An image of a man concentrating while studying

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 know.

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 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, students tend to have a 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. This spirit feels, to some, contrary to the energy of memorization.

In my experience, it is only information that I have thoroughly committed to memory that is creatively useful.

The simple process of learning a bit of information, letting some time pass, and then testing yourself in some way on that piece of information is just foundational. 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. As that information interacts in your mind, a kind of alchemy happens. You see links you wouldn’t see if you had to look everything up in a book or database.

You might object 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?

[This post has been updated during the 2020 site updates. My goal during post updates was to keep the character of the original post, but update for corrections and clarity, as well as to remove broken links.]

23 Comments Add yours

  1. Amartya says:

    Thank you!!! I am studying for my first herb exam – and this put it’s into context. I like memorizing. It’s like doing situps for the mind and keeps it strong.

  2. Eric says:


    I’m glad the article could help! Good luck on your exam!


  3. Tony Brown says:

    In our first year there was emphasis on points and we learnt them alongside our anatomy requirements so good association (and very excellent teacher). Unfortunately year two was about other aspects of shiatsu and no points at all. Apart from points I used regularly much of this information is rusty! Year three is now very big on points again. So back to the memory techniques.

    I agree that memorizing this knowledge is necessary. I say that after not really getting stuck into that task. But the information I use and relate to is there it just comes to mind when needed.

    I look forward to any more articles you write about memory techniques.

  4. Michael says:

    Just started “Principles Of Treatment” last week aka ‘the big picture’ in which you have to have memorized all the shu points, front mus, confluents, influentials, window of heavens, xi clefts, luo connectings, and lower he seas to even be able to sit down at the table and begin class. Plus in case studies 1 we are expected to memorize ‘classical’ (i dont know if they are, as i trust TCMs word on classical things not at all)point prescriptions for assorted ailments along with the differentiations and stuff. So yah, viva 2nd half of 3rd semester.

  5. Abdallah says:

    This is where brain plasticity is your friend. Memory improves. I love the fact that you referred to “The Book of Memory.” I look forward to your comments on the conference very much.
    Hey, check this out. It’s fun and I think you’d enjoy it.


  6. Abdallah says:

    Once, the great scholar and grammarian, Shaykh Muhammad Salim al-‘Udud ash-Shinqiti of Mauritania was attending a meeting for the international jurisprudence council in Cairo Egypt. After the meeting, the Shaykh went out with an Egyptian scholar to have dinner. The two scholars discussed the methods of Islamic study in both countries and this led the Egyptian scholar to jokingly ask him, “Which scholars are more knowledgeable, the scholars of Egypt or the scholars of Mauritania?”

    In response to the question, Shaykh Muhammad Salim said: ” Your scholars are more knowledgeable in the day time, and our scholars are more knowledgeable in the night.”

    Due to the extremely harsh existence in the deserts of the Sahara and the near impossibility of preserving large amounts of written works from the fierce and constant sand storms, the scholars of Mauritania have relied upon a tradition of rote memorization of everything that is studied.

  7. Eric Grey says:

    Michael and Tony,

    Good luck! I learned points last year from an incredible teacher who has as one of his primary talents the ability to organize information EXTREMELY well. This made the task easier. I made probably 800 flashcards that year, and I still keep them next to my bed. I find I’m having to review the information quite a bit even now, a year later – but I also find that every time I do it 1-5 points “stick” in a way that I sense is pretty permanent.

    Anyway – enjoy. 🙂


  8. Eric says:


    Thanks for that link (so addictive!) and the wonderful story. I appreciate your comments very much. That story, as well as the others stories I have read about the history of memorization in different cultures, really tickles my brain in an interesting way. Even though we don’t really need to memorize anything anymore (palm pilots, cell phones) I feel that it is important on multiple levels and in ways I don’t entirely understand.

    Thanks again,


  9. Abdallah says:

    On the need to memorize I offer this analogy: these days swings are considered a liability on primary school campuses due to the risk of injury and litigation. So they are removed. But an occupational therapist I know, who specializes in helping kids develop reading and handwriting skills, prizes the swing at his office because the rhythm of swinging replicates the rhythmic saccades of reading, and the rhythmic alternation of starting and stopping mimics the flow of handwriting. So, perhaps there is something in the fact of memorization as a practice that affects brain plasticity in a way that allows the mind to perceive things in a manner necessary to think holistically.
    My son is homeschooled in a Waldorf education model, and I have learned a great deal about things like how teaching kids to read at earlier and earlier ages actually inhibits the development of the capacity to memorize, imagine, and connect with things in a non-intellectual way (i.e. through senses and capacities other than the intellect). Given the emphasis on symbolic thinking at your school, that should make good sense. Let’s talk more about your studies of memorization in different cultures. I’m all ears.

  10. Katrina says:

    Another great post, well done! Ahhhh…. it seems like I haven’t commented in AGES. You’re so right Eric, school has begun to take up enormous amounts of my time. But I love it!

    I agree that memorization is key. As you’ve mentioned before, my teachers have advised us to memorize a huge amount of information with less emphasis on comprehension and understanding. It’s really quite difficult to do that, my mind rebels. I’m not a fan of being less than clear on the information I learn. But I understand where they’re coming from.

    I’ve found that I use alot of patterns and mnemonics to remember things like points, channels, etc. With Chinese, I find myself remembering words and phrases better because of the tonal nature of the language. The only pitfalls to my patterns and such is that instant recall is pretty lacking. Any suggestions? I’m thinking that it may also be because I’m so green still.

    One and a half months into school and I’m loving it already 🙂

  11. Damo says:

    Hey Eric,
    Put another post on my blog, check it out!
    Right now I’m trying to memorise Fu Ling, funny your article picked it! It’s great you’re talking about memory. I have been thinking about posting some of my techniques up… It is a skill in itself and I have been experimenting with improving it and using different techniques. For herbs I’ve been applying Tony Buzan’s memory matrix idea. Its an extension of a memory peg system. It works like this: a number is related to an image. You combine what your memorizing with that image. Then you have an ordered memory (the numbers) using a learnt trigger (the image). Its worth trying out for say ten memory objects. The recall is pretty stunning and quite easy! I increased my skill to 100, and now I’m beginning to experiment with expanding that…Good things: Give’s you a structure and learning confidence, is sort of fun!Bad things: It takes heaps of time, I tend to have to run through all the info in memory to get to one piece of it, applied to dynamic things like point location it is very difficult. For example if you really wanted to learn 1000 mixed playing cards random shuffled-no problem, but in the context of CM add combining skin surface locations, general ideas about a point and so on, the rigidity of memorizing like that slows you down and can confuse a little bit. Overall I like it, it can be time consuming and its quite specific but so far it has helped. Another technique I’ve used quite well is the Roman Room idea. You have a familiar place or room and you attach what you’re memorising to different areas in that place. Quite good for memorizing basic chunks of info like Yuan points and so on. Anyway this post is too big! Keep up the good work. I had a great teacher once who suggested meditation helps memory as you increase your ability to concentrate, can’t remember his name though.

  12. Eric Grey says:

    Damo –

    Great comment! I enjoy reading your blog. These complicated memorizing schemes tend to just confuse me, but I keep investigating them nonetheless. I find plain old flashcards and repeated contact work best, along with meditation (definitely), as much kinisthetic contact as possible with my subject – and plenty of general good health.

    Thanks for reading!


  13. Evan Hadkins says:

    It’s important to have the information memorised.

    But rote memorisation is not necessarily the best way to achieve this. Especially when it needs to be part of a skill rather than regurgitation on to an exam paper.

    If a client walks in we don’t sit down and write out from memory our course notes.

    And while I’m being controversial. There are two kinds of motivation – extrinsic (rewards and awards) and intrinsic (what we do for its own sake). Intrinsic motivation is best for deeper learning. The awards and rewards (such things as passing exams) have no place where we wish deep learning to occur – such as in health.

    Become fascinated with your health and how acupuncture can help. Understand deeply the experiences that the classics (if not modern academics) refer to. In this way you will rapidly and with pleasure – you will find that you have memorised it with pleasure.

    There are also lots of strategies and tricks to use to assist memorisation. These aren’t taught usually which presumably means either: people want students to suffer or they just don’t care.

    Not meaning to upset anyone but this is important for the development of skilful practitioners.

  14. Frank says:

    Anybody who can help.. I have to memorize for my sales job 1 and 1/2 hours of dialog verbatum. They test for this. I will lose the job if I don’t do it very soon (like in 2 days). Ever since I was a child (I’m 46 now) I have not been able to remember chunks of information. I find it incredable that I even remembered the alphabet. As you will see my spelling has suffered as well. I was always a “c” student and eventually gave up studying because it was useless. I can retain concepts or ideas but not much verbatum. I was able to remember a prayer, the our father (amazing) and that was the longest thing I ever remembered. Child hood memories fade and I usually forget what I did the day before etc.. I’m terrable (bad spelling I know, I cannot remember how to spell that one) with names also. I’m not artistic so visual details are always vague. I cannot remember what color clothes someone is wearing if asked impromptu after they leave the room. (This is done as a detail / observation memory test) Now I’ve tried saying sentances out loud maybe 200 times and then it starts to seep in but then I move on to the second sentance and I start to forget the 1st sentance. I’ve tried A.D.D. medicine, Ginko, B-12, looking in the mirror while saying it, just noting the first letter of each word (helps some), tried singing the text in different voices including silly tones, (I cannot remember a whole song) tried saying the sentance in a very fast pace over and over then slowing it down, tried pacing while repeating the line in a familiar room, tried recording the dialog and playing it back aloud on an endless loop over night and I’ve even resorted to standing on my head. I cannot even remember all the ways I’ve tried. I’ve tried just about everything. Years ago I did a lot of driving so as a brain excersize i tried to memorize license plates all the time. I was always bad at it. I have not tried the way in which your required to remember pictures or numbers as an association because I cannot remember pictures and numbers anyway and feel it may be a waste of time for the kind of memory skills I need. I will need to recall sentances out of sequence or just parts of dialog. When I converse wih people they all feel I’m fairly intelligent and folks come to me for advise on many issues as I said I’m good with concepts and ideas. I like to read, mostly technical stuff (how to’s) and love to learn. I verbally communicate fairly well. I don’t understand how i’m able to pull that off. I can remember a name if i repeat it at least 3 times in conversation but I’ll forget it by the next time I see them. Repetition is all I have that barely gives me results. All my childhood report cards indicated that I did not pay god attention nor did I follow directions very well. I was very well behaved. Shy as well. I still am but mask it well. Being a DJ for parties has helped me practice being comfortable with people. Nobody ever thinks I’m shy. I don’t speak any other language then english and cannot read music. I liked playing the guitar as a child however I could not remember the complete song. Hence I gave it up. I know I sound hopeless. I want to remember so bad. I want to keep this job so bad that in an effort to memorize this stuff I studied straight for 52 hours without sleep a few days ago and that was even worse. However I did remember some stuff temporarly. Sounds like i need a new brain. Anybody want to donate one? Any help or advise will be sincerely appreciated.
    Whats my name? Just kidding. I can’t remember jokes to save my life.

  15. Noelle says:

    I totally agree with you. Since the beginning, I have been memorizing. I also regularly go through and test myself on everything I memorized in order to keep it. It is my experience that few other people actually do this though.

  16. lindseypinky116 says:

    great post! I’m in herbs 2 and 3 this semester. I’m about to take a look at your Evernote blog post.

    1. ericgreypdx says:

      Thanks for the comment! Encouragement is always welcome. 🙂

  17. Jennifer says:

    Hmm…Am a nurse and massage therapist & was able to work & get 3.9 to 4. GPA in school. However, acupuncture school is very different. Almost finished with 1st year & has been almost no conceptual learning, almost all rote memorization with no understanding. No relation to physiology, points are random & have no relation to anatomy thus very difficult to remember compared to, say, a atomic structures. Most students overwhelmed, learning points on each channel for tests, and not remembering the channel after the months test, once we have gone on. I am completely overwhelmed & feeling almost no affinity for this, & failing tests. The points and channels all run together. I am not even clear on whether TCM is considered “energy medicine” or a physical medicine. If it is physical, it follows no principles of actual physiology. If it is “energy medicine” it might make more sense but is different to anything I have learned previously. The pathology patterns for organs make little physiological sense, seem fairly random and each year more and more are added to tests. Having 8 different paradigms for diagnosis seems insane. For me personally I have great difficulty learning by rote random lists without any conceptual understanding. It’s like trying to memorize a telephone book. Overwhelmed & questioning choice of school!!

    1. Eric Grey says:

      CM education tends to feel that way until the later, clinical years. There’s so much information to learn, particularly if you’ve not been raised in a culture where Chinese medicine was commonly practiced. We have to learn a new language, new anatomy, new approaches to healing. It’s a lot – and it does feel random. Also, I’d say that some schools and especially TCM oriented schools, tend always to feel that way regardless of the stage of education. I think that’s because there truly isn’t a full understanding of pathophysiology, anatomy and the underlying philosophy that can and should guide Chinese medical practice. Anyway – I am sympathetic to that perspective and certainly an obsession with memorization gets nobody anywhere. Understanding is key and systematic unfolding of anatomy, physiology and the rest must be there for understanding to happen. Thanks for your comment on this old article! 🙂

  18. Jennifer says:

    Typo…each year more and more “patterns” of pathology added to textbooks. Teachers have also commented on this. Differential diagnosis by western standards is reflexive for me and I keep seeing so many ways serious problems could be missed, particularly with new practitioners. Say, treating a female with changed bowel habits and bloating for a year for GI patterns when what really should have been done was a workup to rule out ovarian cancer.

    1. Eric Grey says:

      And certainly learning those red flags for biomedical disorders can be helpful. And there are also problems with some aspects of CM education that I feel may make some practitioners a bit lazy, causing them to miss important symptoms and signs. That will get better as the systems are continually refined – and that should be a primary focus wherever acupuncture is primary care or close to it. One could also say that in the biomedical orientation we also miss plenty – the subtle changes and signs that CM can somewhat uniquely detect both because of the medicine and the model (more time, more touch). That’s why we should have a deeply integrated medical system where people are team treated with all hands on deck, all eyes on the patient, all focused on one goal – helping that person be the healthiest they can be in their current situation. Much is missed when there’s only one set of eyeballs… Thanks again for your comments!

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