Learning medicine requires assimilating gobs of information by reading and re-reading texts, sitting through lectures, and hands-on experience with patients.  But if you ask Joshua Foer, freelance journalist and 2006 USA Memory Champion, you’ll hear a different explanation for how we learn.  In his book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Foer explains how he went from covering the USA National Memory Championship as a journalist, to winning it a year later, and along the way reveals that expertise in most fields has mostly to do with memory — memory which can be developed.

I know,  I know, it’s a little insulting to think that your doctor or PA is just someone who has memorized a bunch of stuff, but Foer makes a strong argument (drawing on neuroscience and memory research) that in some interesting ways you might not realize, that’s what they are.  No, they didn’t mindlessly run through flashcards for years and *poof * become bright clinicians.  Their memory developed through experiences that  built on one another until they became easy to remember because they formed a web of interrelated items, each reinforcing the other.  Most importantly for medical students, there are ways hamper this process, and ways to ramp it up.  As Foer’s experience proves, your memory can be trained, and with practice you can remember everything*

I started reading his book because I thought, “Geez, if I were better at holding on to the things I learn in class (beyond and exam), I might put them to great use – and maybe even shorten the wait to becoming a good clinician.”  It’s something that medical students talk about all the time — they get discouraged about how hard it is to take everything in in a way that will keep it there for any length of time.

Don’t think you have a good memory?  Join the club.  Foer’s memory was mediocre at best when he started, but with training, he was able to memorize the order of a deck of cards in 100 seconds, among many other impossible-sounding feats which definitely do apply to medicine.  I highly recommend his book for premeds and pre-PAs.  It explains in fascinating detail how your memory works and how you can expand it.

(Also available in audio format from iTunes, audible.com, amazon.com, and all the other big bookstores that I can’t remember right now).

*Okay, maybe not everything, but definitely far more than you do right now.