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Your Memory (and three other memory books)

To be able to remember many historical dates and details, to improve my reading apprehension and to help me learn Hebrew next year, I am developing my memory skills.  I have started down this path a few times before over the last few years, and each time I thoroughly enjoyed the beginning steps but never followed through with any full program.  This time, I am more highly motivated.  Since I have time to plan this out,  I decided to read several books on memory improvement and synthesize the best possible program for my specific needs.  Although I read them in a sequence determined only by which ones were already on my bookshelf and which ones I had to order, I will review them in order of their helpfulness.

Kenneth L. Higbee is a psychology professor at Brigham Young University.  His Your Memory : How It Works and How to Improve It provides a very thorough, well-referenced explanation of how memory works and how memory improvement systems work.  Higbee is very realistic in his approach to the benefits of improving your memory, provides detailed explanations of the various memory improvement methods and describes which types of memorization would be best suited to each method.  The book is very well-organized and Higbee’s writing style makes it easy to learn the content.  Your Memory also includes a helpful chapter on learning strategies related to memorization and one very useful appendix.  This one book contains all the information you need to start improving your memory, but it was not written as just a stand-alone memory improvement book.  I recommend reading this book first, then reading one or more other books dedicated to memory improvement.  Starting with Higbee will give you a good grounding (although not too technical) in the mechanics of memory, set your expectations appropriately for memory improvement programs and give you a baseline against which to compare the promises and content of other books.

Harry Lorayne’s How to Develop a Super Power Memory is a classic, and it’s a classic for a reason.  Originally published in 1957, this book has everything you need.  He covers both simple and complex systems and describes how to apply these systems to all types of memory work (the subtitle is accurate, you can “train your memory to never forget – names, faces, numbers, events, facts, ideas!”).  Lorayne has a very conversational writing style and provides some tests that help you track your progress.  I am using Lorayne’s version of the peg system (basic phonetic mnemonics) as I get started working on improving my memory.  So far, it’s amazing.  The encouraging thing about this type of development work is that you get results immediately.  Some of what you read may be a bit hard to believe, but then you try it and it works.  Nice learning motivation.  Lorayne’s claims are in line with Higbee’s research, so there’s nothing in here that is untenable.  If you read these two titles in the order reviewed here, you’ll see that Higbee is very, very familiar with Lorayne’s work (and his anecdotes).  This book was highly recommended by some contacts with professional experience in memory development and I can see why.

Dominic O’Brien’s How to Develop a Perfect Memory (which I guess is just as good as a Super Power Memory?) focuses completely on the Loci method (covered in detail by Higbee and in passing by Lorayne) and on a complex system which O’Brien uses that is completely different from anything covered by Higbee or Lorayne.  You could use O’Brien’s system to do most of the things possible with the phonetic mnemonics system, but I think a better use for it would be as an alternate mental filing system.  One of the things Higbee covers is the concept of interference, which is what takes place when you are trying to retrieve data and the retrieval process doesn’t quite work (for multiple possible reasons explained by Higbee).  You could greatly reduce interference by using O’Brien’s system along with the phonetic mnemonics taught by Lorayne.  The catch, of course, is that you would have to learn and practice both systems.  They are so different though, that you would have no problem confusing the retrieval methods.   This book (or his CD audio book Quantum Memory Power, assuming it has the same system described in it) could help you build a great memory, but I’m inclined to use the material as a completely separate and complementary complex system instead of using it as my main system.

The fourth book I read was Tony Buzan’s Use Your Perfect Memory: Dramatic New Techniques for Improving Your Memory; Third Edition (Plume) (NOTE to future memory book writers: come up with more original names!)  Buzan’s book contains most of the standard systems covered in Lorayne’s, but it’s a much worse book.  If it’s already on your shelf or if you can get it for free, and you can’t find any of the above-mentioned works, Buzan’s book would be OK.  But to learn the basics, you’ll have to put up with lots of ads for his other books, audio programs and training materials.  The non-stop plugs for his other stuff (all of which is going to make you even better……) were pretty distracting.  He did have some interesting information on learning strategies, but from other reviews of his book I gather most of the studies that backed up everything were outdated (not a problem with Higbee’s work).  Buzan also covers mind-mapping in his book, but not in much detail…… you need to buy another product from him for that.

If you want to improve your memory, read Higbee and Lorayne.  If you already have a very vivid imagination and don’t need the semi-crutch of being able to work out forgotten memory pegs (a feature of the phonetic mnemonics system) or if you’re looking for an additional way to remember things, then add O’Brien to your list.   I’ve written this post with no more than a few weeks of memory training behind me.  I anticipate developing the full phonetic mnemonic system in English, using it to memorize historical data, then probably developing a Hebrew-language version of the system next year.  I only say this because although all four books have information on how to use their systems to learn foreign languages, none of their suggestions seem as effective as building an entirely separate system in a new language (says the man getting ready to learn his first non-Indo-European root language).


1 comment to Your Memory (and three other memory books)

  • Andrew

    John, thank you for your summaries of these books. I am 75% done with Higbee’s book and I am excited by the material. I will look forward to reading Lorayne’s and O’Brien’s work now as well. Thanks again.

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