I was just reading an article in the latest National Geographic magazine about memory. It is an interesting article that got me thinking about the role of memorization in learning Chinese medicine. 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. While that’s not our situation today, I do think the article has relevance to us.
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 central component in learning Chinese medicine in China.
All of my professors that were educated in China can recite astonishing 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. I’m amazed by how they use these mental artifacts to learn Chinese medicine.
One of our professors who was born and raised in China mentioned that for the Chinese, memorizing the material is primary. Analysis and expounding one’s own thoughts about the material is secondary, and not encouraged until the memorization process has had ample time to mature. In this view, having the information in your brain is a prerequisite for making connections between concepts, and bringing information up quickly in clinical contexts.
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 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 is notorious for his frequent testing and exacting standards. Many students fail his first midterm because they don’t take memorization seriously.
People underestimate the amount of information they will need to memorize in learning Chinese medicine.
American students tend to complain about what they see as being forced to engage in rote memorization. These folks and wider American culture puts a much stronger value on analysis of information and the formation of opinions and judgments. In my school in particular, students 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.
However, the memorization process is alchemical, and produces conceptual gold.
In learning Chinese medicine, the memorization process gets the basic information into the brain. Depending on how memorization is done, this should make retrieval simple in testing and other contexts. But, the more valuable aspect is what happens between the pieces of knowledge, particularly outside of a testing context. There’s a very special alchemy that happens there.
When a clinical situation comes up, I will often have a memorized bit of information rise to the surface immediately. For instance, if I’m seeing a patient for the treatment of migraine headaches, I will immediately think about Xiao chaihu tang, then Danggui si ni tang. That’s the product of my rote memorization of facts I learned from my teachers.
But the process doesn’t stop there. It’s as if I have an internal mindmap that I’m following. I touch the “node” called Xiao chaihu tang, and that immediately connects to several other “nodes” of knowledge. Perhaps I consider some special point on the Gallbladder, which then leads me to think about another herbal formula. And in thinking about that, I am reminded of some case details from my teacher that I memorized, giving me another idea.
This is honestly the simplest explanation of the inner alchemy I experience while I memorize to learn Chinese medicine. As I’ve written this article, I’ve discovered how difficult it is to describe this phenomenon. But, what I know is that in my own practice, memorization is crucial. I cannot say I enjoy the process all the time, but I do enjoy the results. Hopefully, my patients will as well.
[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.]