Book Notes: "Your Memory: How it Works and How to Improve It"

I read this book because I’ve been thinking quite a lot about how to memorise Chinese characters effectively again lately. I had much success with the Heisig method and still generally recommend it but I was curious to see if I can find ways to improve it.

Best method depends on circumstances:

  1. How knowledgeable are you at the topic already?
  2. What material are you trying to remember?
  3. How will remembering be measured? (recognition vs. recall)
  4. What kind of remembering? (Rote remembering vs. applying understanding)
  5. How long will you need to remember?

Three stages of memory:

  1. Acquisition
  2. Storage
  3. Retrieval

Chunking information can increase short-term memory capacity.

Three types of long-term memory:

  1. Procedural (how to do something)
  2. Semantic (factual information)
  3. Episodic (personal events)

Access to long-term memory goes through short-term memory (bottleneck).

Measures of memory:

  1. Recall
  2. Recognition
  3. Relearning

Memory is a matter of degree, you sometimes only remember parts.

Memory is generative not duplicative. Recalling something is a process of reconstruction.

Information may be stored in different ways (auditory/visual/meaning)

How do we forget?

  1. Decay
  2. Repression
  3. Distortion (remembering what we want to remember)
  4. Interference
  5. Cue dependency

Concrete words may be processed differently from abstract words.

You’re more likely to remember word plus image than just one of the two.

Sleep learning/subliminal learning are probably bogus.

Basic principles: meaningfulness, familiarity, rhymes, patterns, organisation, association, visualisation, attention

More principles: repetition, relaxation (anxiety hinders recall), context (setting), interest, feedback

Recite what you’re learning without looking at it.

Study systems should be:

  1. Based on effective strategies
  2. Help you identify & understand important parts
  3. Help you remember those parts
  4. Be more efficient than learning by rote
  5. Easy to learn


Can be visual (picturing information) or verbal (making associations with words).

Keyword mnemonic to learn foreign vocab (make association with sound of foreign word, connect the two with a visual mnemonic).

Making visual associations effective:

  1. Interaction (the parts of the image should interact)
  2. Vividness (motion, substitution, exaggeration)
  3. Bizarreness (unique, novel)

Using images for abstract concepts:

  1. Substitute concrete images (liberty bell for liberty, a judge for justice)
  2. Substitute a similar sounding word (celery for salary)

Mnemonic Systems

Can help in three ways as a mental filing system:

  1. Gives you a way to locate the first item
  2. Gives you a way to locate successive items
  3. Tells you when you’ve reached the last item

The Link System: encode items with visual images, link items by forming visual associations

The Story System: combine items into a story

Useful for lists, speeches

The Loci System: memory palaces

The Peg System: use pegwords to memorize abstract information

The Phonetic System: associate consonants with digits, memorize numbers by adding vowels to make words

Can be used to make a mental filing system