A Review of How Memory Works—and How to Make It Work for You by Robert Madigan, published in volume 61, issue 17, of PsycCRITIQUES

The cover of How Memory Works—and How to Make It Work for You, which appears in the
self-help and general interest list of Guilford Press, has eye-catching bullet points that
promise research-based strategies that it will make it possible for you to “remember
anything,” “never misplace your keys, wallet, or phone,” and “avoid embarrassing memory
lapses at parties, meetings, and chance encounters,” among other things. Those are big
promises, and who does not need help in at least one (and most likely all) of those areas?

Robert Madigan is not alone in making such bold claims. Other books on memory
improvement have titles that promise you a “Super Memory” that can remember “Anything”
and “Everything.” How Memory Works covers the mnemonic technics, based on imagery,
acronyms, rhymes, and other devices, that are the focus of such books.

The most common mnemonic system is the memory palace, a modern version of the
method of loci, which has been around for 2,500 years. To use these strategies, which are
intended for situations in which you need to remember things in a specific order, you
imagine a trip through a familiar setting (e.g., one’s house, the route to work) that has
numerous distinct locations that you will encounter in a set order along the way. After
developing a mental image representing each of the things you want to remember, you
place the image of the first thing that you want to remember in the first stop along your
route and then repeat the process for each location along the way. When it is time to
remember the information, you go on the same mental journey, retrieve the image at each
point along the way, and reconvert the image to the original to-be-remembered material.

However, although mnemonic techniques may help you remember things, they are unlikely
to promote understanding of what you’re remembering. The strategies used by memory
prodigies, whose prowess is measured by tasks such as remembering randomly ordered
lists, strings of numbers, or words, might help you remember the names of kings and
presidents, generals and battles, but they will not help you grasp how the actions of
successive kings in different countries led to wars or influenced the ability of their generals
to wage them. There are books that present mnemonics for surgeons, but most of us would
prefer to be treated by surgeons who knew what they were doing. Fortunately, How Memory
Works
offers other paths to remembering. Madigan also notes the weaknesses of the
mnemonics he presents and points out situations in which they are unlikely to be helpful,
something lacking in most expositions on mnemonic systems.

What sets this book apart from the pack is the breadth of its coverage and the fact that
Madigan ties the mnemonic techniques he presents to supporting research and theory. For
example, in his chapter on “Remembering Facts,” Madigan lays out the study strategies
covered in how-to manuals for students. Madigan explains why studying spread over days
or weeks typically works than cramming the night before the test using carefully controlled
studies of the spacing effect. He also evaluates the effectiveness of different activities that
can be used while studying, such as rereading versus self-testing, drawing on findings in the
literature. Perhaps the only comparable book in this regard is the nearly identically titled
one by Higbee (1996), but Madigan has the advantage of two decades of additional
research.

Madigan also provides advice on practical matters such as remembering skills (e.g., sports,
CPR), “remembering life” (i.e., events in one’s past), and “remembering to remember” (i.e.,
prospective memory for things you need to do). Madigan touches on the effectiveness of
memory training games and exercises presented on computers and mobile devices and
mindfulness meditation, as well as physical exercise as a means of counteracting the effects
of aging, topics that are novel, if not unique, in books on enhancing memory. Perhaps most
intriguing (and original in this genre) is his examination of the relationship between mindset
and memory, which is based primarily on research unavailable to Higbee (1996).

Mind-set (e.g., Dweck, 2006) is a construct that primarily grew out of Carol Dweck’s
research on the effect of children’s beliefs about the nature of intelligence and earlier work
on learned helplessness. People who have a growth mind-set believe abilities can be
improved through effort and practice. Those with a fixed mind-set believe that abilities are
the result of heredity or other factors that cannot be changed (e.g., age) and thus set a
limit on one’s level of performance. Mind-sets can be influenced by negative stereotypes.
Madigan cited research showing that older adults who perceive themselves as elderly and
have a negative stereotype about older adults’ performance on memory and general
cognitive abilities performed more poorly on such tasks than same-aged peers and that selfidentification can be manipulated experimentally.

Madigan devotes more than a third of the book to explaining how memory works before
going on to tell you how to improve it. Unfortunately, the reader is unlikely to realize the full
extent to which there is research underlying the techniques that are presented. There are
no citations or footnotes in the text to refer the reader to supporting studies; rather,
readers must search through 40 pages of notes at the end of the book to find them. In the
notes, references are indexed by page numbers, and a brief phrase from the text is used to
establish the match. However, a reader might not identify such statements as research
based, thus failing to seek out the relevant source. For example, in discussing the difficulty
of listening to a conversation at a cocktail party while watching for the arrival of a friend, an
example of situations that strain the limits on attention and working memory, Madigan
states that “something has got to give” (p. 114). In his notes, he provides a reference
supporting this statement, but there is no cue to the reader to look for it.

Dr. Madigan, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, states that How
Memory Works is based on his long experience as instructor of classes on human memory, and he draws on sources from GQ to Psychological Review and Journal of Neuroscience. He
makes no claim to expertise as a researcher, and I was able to locate only a handful of
publications that he has authored. However, he has a strong command of the topics covered
in the book and makes good use of his instructional experience and skills, as attested by the
advice of Robert A. Bjork, one of the preeminent researchers in learning, memory, and
cognition, that people who are interested in understanding their memory and want to
improve it should “run out and buy this book” because it is “based on research” and yet
“accessible and lively” (back cover). The book is a good introduction to strategies for
improving one’s memory and the theory and research behind them.


References
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine
Books. PsycINFO →
Higbee, K. L. (1996). Your memory: How it works and how to improve it (2nd ed.). New
York, NY: Marlow & Company.