Book Recommendation: Remembering Willie Nelson

If you haven’t read the book, Remembering Willie Nelson, yet, I think that people here will like it. Check out the link and leave a comment here if you’ve read it.

The book contains many lists of references which can be used for further investigation. Here are two of the studies I found through the book:

Novices, Apprentices, and Mnemonists: Acquiring Expertise with the Phonetic Mnemonic

Abstract Three kinds of participants can be identified in research with the phonetic mnemonic—novices, apprentices, and mnemonists, and most research has involved novices. Two experiments investigated whether ordinary college students using the phonetic mnemonic could duplicate two feats of Luria's memorist identified as S: memorizing a 20-digit matrix in 40 seconds, and memorizing a 50-digit matrix in 3 minutes. Experiment 1 was a large-n study in which novices were provided with phonetic keywords along with the matrices; nearly half of the students successfully memorized each matrix with no errors in recall. Experiment 2 was a small-n study in which apprentices were not given the keywords with the matrices; three of the four students also successfully memorized each matrix with perfect recall. The results suggest that ordinary college students are capable of acquiring a level of skilled memory that rivals the abilities that appear to be innate or idiosyncratic in memorists and mnemonists, and that additional research with mnemonic apprentices might be beneficial.

Promoting higher-order learning benefits by building lower-order mnemonic connections

Abstract Two experiments were conducted in an effort to combine a mnemonic strategy for remembering individual items with a mnemonic procedure for remembering, and reasoning about, inter-item relationships. In Experiment 1, students using the combined mnemonic approach were able to identify more individual items (fish names from their pictures) and were subsequently able to remember more components of six studied hierarchies (order, family, and species names of the fish) than did students in an ‘own best method’ control condition. Additionally, and importantly, mnemonic students outperformed control students on an analogy task requiring inferences about superordinate, subordinate, and coordinate relationships. In Experiment 2, the initial number of to-be-learned fish was reduced so that the performance of both mnemonic and control students was comparable with respect to fish identification. Despite such item-level comparability, an advantage for mnemonically instructed students was observed on both immediate and two-day-delayed hierarchy tests. We suggest that by cementing lower-order connections, mnemonic strategies facilitate students' learning of higher-order information.
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Thanks for this post, Josh. I wrote some notes while reading the book (after seeing your comments). You’re right that the book is best at the beginning, but then becomes less and less so as it goes on.

Remembering Willie Nelson (book notes)


  • Genovese tells a personal story and distinguishes between a trained memory vs a naturally good memory
  • Memory’s importance in creating our sense of self (esp w/r/t questions of waging)
  • Notes that imagination gets better with age [unexpected observation, but it makes sense]

2: ‘A Case for Memory’

  • [in this chapter Genovese pushes back against the current (dominant) discourse against the use of memory in education and in general life]
  • fallacy of the ‘pyramid’ of skills in education as a value judgement - i.e. the way rote memory is seen as inferior to ‘understanding’ and other skills
  • studies showing how knowing more helps in knowing more
    • the more you know, the more you have hooks on which to associate new incoming information
  • (memorisation of words helps in language learning and pushing you quickly on the path to fluency)
  • role of vocabulary in English (for native English speakers)
    • diglossia (Anglo-Saxon words vs Latin/European words)
    • ‘language barrier’ (people who don’t know the latinate vocabulary are somewhat debilitated in their ability to get higher ranked jobs / education etc)
  • incidental learning and context-based approaches for learning foreign language vocabulary
    • context vs instructional? (ideally both / mixed approach
    • ‘drill’ is a useful technique, but abandoned for now in reaction to strait-laced methods of old

3: “The Science of Memory”

  • what does memory + learning mean/connotate?
    • discussion of the Pavlovian effect
  • Building blocks of learning
    • non-associative learning
      • habituation (becoming used to something)
      • sensitisation (reflex becomes stronger the more a stimulus is applied – as with PTSD)
    • associative learning
      • operant conditioning (responding to consequences)
      • Pavlovian conditioning
    • observational learning (learning from someone else’s experience)
    • rule-governed behaviours (learning through language)
  • The difference between behavioural and cognitive psychology
    • behavioural (premise that we can only observe behaviours / that it’s impossible to figure out the inner world of something like memory)
    • cognitive (premised that we can know things about the inner world, and try to delve a bit more under the surface)
  • 3 types of memory
    • sensory (like the images you see after a camera flash)
    • working memory (sometimes known as / confused with short-term memory
    • long-term memory
  • declarative vs procedural memory
    • declarative = information
      • semantic (facts / independent of direct personal experience)
      • episodic (derived from personal experience)
    • procedural = how to do something
    • n.b. as with something like driving, things can start off as a declarative memory but then shift into procedural
  • The search for the ‘memory trace’ (longish discussion of efforts to figure out how memory works on a biological level, but in the end there is still a lot of work to be done on this)

4: ‘Is memory improvement possible?’

  • technique or talent? (a version of nature vs nurture arguments) - inbuilt or not?
    • examples
    • can mere mortals learn how to do this stuff?
    • role of synaesthasia
    • how much can we learn? can the brain/head get ‘full’?
  • the need for proper attention as a prerequisite
    • type one processing – taking in just the superficialities
    • type two processing – processing the information / making connections and associations

5: Associations

  • Aristotle’s 3 laws of association
    • similarity
    • contrast
    • contiguity (things that happen close together in time)
  • defining memory as an associative system
  • be careful with analogies – it’s more accurate to say that memory is the network rather than are what’s stored at the end of the network

6: Brain Training

  • seems to prevent dementia
  • but we have few proven ideas as to what to train – probably good to train diversely and with things that push you to your limits

7: Mnemonics

  • this chapter is an overview of all the basic systems of commonly-known mnemonics (1st-letter system, peg system, major system, loci, etc etc)

8: Ebbinghaus & the Forgetting Curve

  • (all the usual things one reads about Ebbinghaus and his experiments and what he discovered)
  • ‘interference’ as a means towards forgetting – theory (as opposed to the ‘decay’ theory of memory/forgetting)
  • different kinds of forgetting

9: Reversing the Forgetting Curve

  • some basic principles to reverse the likelihood that you’ll forget something
    • initial memory strength
    • repetition
    • spacing effect
    • testing effect
  • Anki and various uses he gets out of the programme
    • he makes a case for using a single Anki deck rather than multiple decks, so as to minimise the likelihood that you’ll skip certain decks.

10: some other tricks

  • memrise
  • sleep tips
  • meditation benefits
  • importance of a balanced diet

11: the future of memory

  • benefits of memory training
  • questions whether memory training has any benefits for other domains

Appendix: His routine

  • Anki
  • memrise
  • treadmill language study (pimsleur or flashcards)
  • meditation
  • yoga
  • balanced diet