Review: 'The Memory Book' by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas (1974)

The Memory Book may be the best book on visual mnemonics I’ve ever read. I just wish these mnemonics actually worked.

Welcome to the new Tuesday Review! Every Tuesday, I want to review a book or website that offers major insights about remembering and thinking.

Today’s review: The Memory Book, by Harry Lorayne & Jerry Lucas. An oldie, a goodie, and possibly, a gigantic mistake.

I picked up my copy at a library book sale back in 2006. I’d been meaning to improve my memory for awhile, but this is the book that changed everything.

The Memory Book unlocked the strange and magical world of visual memory systems. Visual mnemonics, the loci method, mnemonics for numbers, names, decks of cards, Chinese ideograms, foreign vocabulary, maps, even sports plays – it’s all here.

I’ve read many similar books since then, but this little book packs in more visual mnemonic systems than any other book I’ve seen.

(And I haven’t even checked the updated edition. They may have added even more. They may also have cleaned up the occasional racist and chauvinistic undertones that publishers didn’t notice so much in 1974.)

Original Awareness (Pay Attention)

This is a great little book of mnemonics. Unfortunately, I no longer think mnemonics are the key to remembering. Instead, I think you remember best by cultivating the four mental habits of attention, interest, assocation, and review. Mnemonics ultimately get in the way.

Interestingly, Lorayne and Lucas also begin with attention. They call it Original Awareness. I can still remember reading this, and sensing that Original Awareness was probably important. But it also sounded boring. I wanted to get to the cool memory systems.

So did they. Attention gets very little discussion. They quickly move on, and the rest of the book features mnemonics.

Still, at least they mentioned attention. And it does come up again throughout the book. You can’t remember a name, for instance, if you don’t hear it first. Other memory articles and books often seem to skip attention entirely.

So Many Mnemonics … But Do They Work?

Mnemonics associate knowledge so that you can find it again. But instead of associating it other actual knowledge in your head, you associate the new knowledge with a strange, memorable, and otherwise meaningless mnemonic.

Arguing against mnemonics is bittersweet for me. If you flip through The Memory Book, you get a whirlwind of crazy new things to think about. I can still feel echoes of my first excitement. I glimpsed a new world, a world where I could I translate anything I wanted into images that would stay.

Over years of practice, I discovered that the images did stay. What didn’t stay so well was the actual knowledge.

Even when the knowledge would stay, I had a hard time thinking about it. My mnemonics for the Gospel of Mark might help me remember the words of a verse, but could I imagine the verse or think about it? Not so much. I was too busy imagining the mnemonic.

Mnemonics Waste Mental Energy

For instance, Lorayne and Lucas have a short chapter on remembering what you read. They suggest making up mnemonics for every fact as you read.

A single, fact-loaded paragraph generates a chain of six separate pictures. Some with multiple elements. For one paragraph.

When I read this now, it seems crazy. My eyes glaze over just rereading their complicated mnemonics. You would have to practice and practice and practice to be able to spin up mnemonics fast enough to read more than a few pages an hour.

And how long would they last? Mnemonics can fade quickly. You’d have to practice visualizing until these mnemonics would actually stay in your head for more than a few minutes. How would you keep similar mnemonics from interfering with each other? And how many facts would you still remember in a month?

Though they don’t answer these questions, Lorayne and Lucas may have managed to developed their mnemonic skills to overcome these problems. Even so, why didn’t they just spend all that mental energy thinking about the actual material? Instead of making mnemonics, they could have been finding meanings. Connecting to what they already knew.

How would you have any time left over to think about what you’d read?

Mnemonics Are Better Than “Normal” Inattention

I will say this – mnemonics are better than nothing. If you’ve spent your whole life not paying full attention (as I did), mnemonics force you to think more clearly than you ever have.

Every so often, Lorayne and Lucas seem to sense that improving your memory has much more to do with concentration than mnemonics.

Remember that if you think up your own silly pictures, you’re more Originally Aware of the information. Just trying to form the associations is half the battle–you’re concentrating on the material as you never have before.

But they go on to suggest using mnemonics to memorize the Bible or Shakespeare. I know from my own experience that mnemonics make remembering texts harder. They make me think about the goofy mnemonics, not the meanings of the texts. Spend that time reading the words slowly, out loud, and you’ll learn them much faster.

Learning Is Not Magic

It’s worth noting that Lorayne used these memory tricks professionally – as actual tricks. He was a magician. For instance, he routinely memorized the names of an entire studio audience, hearing each name only once.

If I had to memorize hundreds of names in twenty minutes, I’d use mnemonics too. I wouldn’t be trying to know these people, only hold on to the information long enough to perform.

(In real life, I think a more meaningful approach to names would be much better.)

But learning isn’t a studio performance. Facts are worthless if they don’t mean anything to you. And meaning comes from connecting facts, not to mnemonics, but to other meaningful knowledge.

The Memory Book remains an excellent introduction, possibly the best, to practical visual mnemonics. But when are visual mnemonics really practical? Magic shows? Definitely. Tests that are all about the grade? For sure.

Books you really care about? For that, you need quality thinking.