All what you need to know about Memory in Chinese medicine



“The basis of our existence depends on our ability to remember things from the past. Without the past we cannot create a future. Chinese medicine and Chinese psychology have a unique way to explain the mind and its memory. This article will give you a quick insight. Enjoy.”

Nils Volden



记性 Jìxing is the ability of a person to store information as a memory. The information is absorbed from the outside world by a sensorial system located in the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin, and stored in the brain. At a later point of time we find the person might use the stored information. The process from stimuli to a stored memory is an interesting three step processes that start with 编码 Biānmǎ – Encoding; changing external information into a signal that can be encoded by the body. This is done by a sense. In Chinese medicine we got five senses: Visual is connected to Liver Zang, tactile to Heart Zang, Taste to Spleen Zang, Smell to Lung Zang and Auditory to Kidney Zang. Depending on the qi in the related Zang organ we find the sense work well or bad. Beside the actual sense we need to consider the mental aspect Yi. Yi is the mental aspect that collects information in general, if Yi qi is strong the senses will work normal, but if the Qi is deficient we will have a reduced function in the senses. Yi is the mental aspect of Spleen Zang. At last we also have another variable in the Psychic qi. Depending on the general function of Shen, the mind, we will have a strong Psychic qi or a deficient one. If a Psychic qi xu, Zhi qi xu or a distinct Zang organ qi xu we might get a general reduced mental activity and thereby less information to the memory, and thereby a deficient memory.

The second step is 存储 Cúnchǔ – Storage. This is to accommodate the information for later use. It is normal to think this as the storing process in Yi (short-term memory) and – Zhi (long-term memory). Yi is intimately related to the short-term memory and its ability to remember things for a shorter period of time without repeating the information. Normally brain capacity is to remember 7±2 items for 20 seconds. It exist different techniques to expand this quantity dramatically. The most common one are to group the items (chunking) or create interesting histories around the items. The recent years we find the short term memory being thought to record its information acoustically, meaning as sounds. That is why it helps to repeat information verbally. Here we might find five interesting variants of programming of the short time memory or Yi. If you repeat facts and memorize directly the words from a text without putting something yours inside, we find persons with a strong Shen or a Chenn personality (Heart zang personality) to be favored. If the person repeats only the core important words and little more, we find this way of memorizing favor person with a strong Yi or I personality (Spleen zang personality). If the person uses constructive and future directed words in memorizing we find this to favor a person with a strong Po or a Pro personality (Lung zang personality). If the memorizing is deep into the text and the focus is on understanding the actual intentions in the written material, we find this favor a person with a strong Zhi or a Teche personality (Kidney zang personality). Finally, if a person memorize by jumping back and forward in a text, visualizing using graphical words we will find this favor a strong Hun or a Roun personality (Liver zang personality). The technique for remembering information is strongly connected to individuals.

The last step is 找回 Zhǎohuí – Retrieval; to retrieve the information for use by the conscious mind from Yi (short-term memory) or Zhi (long-term memory). Information follows the three paths of Zhaohui. First we have the standard recalling of information from Zhi as a request from Shen. Second we have Yi giving information directly to Hun that creates plans for Shen. Third is the direct use of extra strong information in Yi. If a person cannot store information then he suffers from amnesia, loss of memory. It is also interesting that the traditional focus on memory is directed toward capacity and duration of the memory, and not in the speed, accuracy and flexibility in the system.
In the world of memory we might say that it is our sensorial nervous system provides us with all the information. For example our eyes decode reflections of light to signals in our nervous system. The nerves in the eyes decode ALL light that hits the retina, only when it gets dark (or when you close your eyes) we find your nerve impulses from the eyes become reduced. Information constantly flow to your mind from your eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. The interesting here is that our mind has found ways to block information that is repeated over a prolonged time span, and to pay more attention to information that is new, different and intense in character. This means that you absorb everything, but you mainly SELECT what to pay attention to. The selection happens mainly in Shen.


The different systems that keep memories for us are commonly known as the short-term memory (Yang memory) and the long-term memory (Yin memory), 短期 Duǎnqī (short-term) and 长线 Chángxiàn (long-term). We also got a type of memory that might be seen as a super short-term memory. This Yang-Yang memory is mainly dominated by the sensory memory. It keeps about 12 items of information stored up to 1 second after they are perceived. After this second you WILL forget what you stored and it will NEVER come back to you. This is simply only an automatic unconscious response to something, meaning without any cognition of any type. You store information for a very limited time. The information provided through this memory is only related to a momentary need of information. Let us say that you are walking outside, you check if it comes a car, you see a bird, a cloud is moving, a person move inside a car parked in front, an empty box of Coca-Cola lies on the street and a stone is under your shoe. Some of the information has no importance out of the moment. Making you forget the information in a second. This Yang-Yang memory is related to the Yang aspect in Yi. Yang Yi will absorb, use and discard information before you even knew it existed. You find the root to Yang Yi in Li and the congenital essence. That is why this inborn memory mechanism cannot be improved. It is normal to divide into three temporal sensory memories in western science: visual, hearing and tactile. The three memories are defined as Visual or Iconic memory is the ability to store visual information after being exposed for visual stimuli. Hearing or Echoic memory is the ability to store auditory information after being exposed for a type of sound. The third sensory memory is touch or Haptic memory. This is the ability to store information about being touch by something. Chinese medicine states that it is two more sensory memories: taste and smell. Taste memory is the ability to store information about taste. Smell memory is the ability to store information about smell.

In Chinese medicine it is normal to associate the short-term memory to Yi and thereby Spleen zang. Chinese psychology states that the short term memory is not permanent, and passing of nature and thereby Yang. This momentary memory is of high importance for our survival, but the stored information degenerate quickly in importance as new information enters. The limitations and the system are regulated by congenital factors. If we look closely into Yi we will find a possible division in Wai (external) – and Nei (internal) parts. The Wai part of Yi is intimately related to Yang-Yang Yi or the super short-term memory and Yang Yi. The Nei part of Yi is related to both the Yang Yi and the Yin Yi. The Yang Yi is the connection between Yi and Hun, the highway of information into the mental system. The Yin Yi is the connection between Yi and Zhi, the channel for direct storing.

The long-term memory is the ability to store information over prolonged periods of time. All information that reaches the long-term memory has at some point been in the short-term memory; Yi to Zhi. The normal way to transform information from the storage in the short-term memory to the long-term memory is trough repetition. To remember stored information in the short-term easily we stored it with words, but in the long term memory have another way to record its information. The long-term memory stores its information semantically, or as meanings. This means that you store the information according to how you sense the information; perhaps as women, cars, parties or political groupings. Some might connect information as pleasant, unpleasant or as neutral. We are all are different, but the short-term memory uses verbal and the long-term memory uses meanings. Just think about storing something as a meaning and later to find out that it were incorrect; to change this is a difficult process. Perhaps this is the root to the true believer syndrome. Another aspect with the long-term memory is the episodic way this memory work. This is a memory system that works as a file system that has all its information listed semantically as what, when and where. Long-term memories are stored all over the brain, but short-term memories are more located in the frontal lobe and in the parietal lobe. However Hippocampus is responsible for transferring information from the short term memory to the long term memory; not storing.

In Chinese medicine we associate the long-term memory to Zhi and thereby the Kidney zang. To enter the long term memory we need the information to give a strong impact (trauma) or to be repeated multiple times, and the more meaning it has the better it sticks. The information enters Zhi from Yi (the short-term memory) and stays until it is needed in Shen. The stored information in Zhi is housed in Zhi Yin and the active part of the information is stored in Zhi Yang. The information from Zhi and the information frequently used in Shen are stored in Zhi Yang. The interesting here is the transition between Zhi Yang and Zhi Yin. This is a process that origin in the congenital essence. The variance in ability to store information in Zhi and to retrieve information varies from person to person.


To better understand the function of the memory we need to look at a model. In western science we find many different models that describe how the memory works. Best known is the Atkinson-Shiffrin model from 1968. This model explains an interaction between the sensory memory, short-term memory and the long-term memory. The sensory memory will give information to the short-term memory. Certain information that is repeated or is presented strongly will be sent to the long-term memory for storing. The model explains the transfer and retrieval of information, rehearsal of information and the attention to distinct information. Other models like the Working memory model from 1974 focus differently. For example here we find the short-term memory working to maintain the information in the short-term storage. We find loops of information in the three basic stores: the central executive, the phonological loop and the visuo-spatial sketchpad. The central executive is essentially an attention sensory storage. From here the information is sent to three different component processes: the phonological loop (auditory: words and sounds in loops), the visuo-spatial sketchpad (visual/ spatial information), and the episodic buffer (linking information together). This theory explains the difference between verbal and visual and the disadvantage when doing two visual at the same time. This two models focusing a little different, the first one have the memories as separate entities and plays with that. The second one focuses on patterns inside the information like auditory and visual aspects. I guess that some place in the future these two models will become one.

It is easy to get confused in the jungle of words surrounding the theme of memory. Let me quickly guide you through the most important themes. First we got two main aspects in memory: Memory recognition (indicate when observing information; word and photo) and to Recall memory (retrieve learned information). It is also common to speak about different indicative subgroups of memory like Topographic memory (orientation and finding the way), Flashbulb memory (episodic/ autobiographical memories), Declarative/ explicit memory (Long-term memory: a conscious recall of information), Semantic memory (facts out of – or related to a context), Episodic memory (facts and emotions from a given context), Visual memory (mental image; can give priming), and Procedural/ implicit memory (learning motor skills). Often this list confuses and complicates more than it helps, but since these words are quite common it helps to know the correct vocabulary. When we start to speak about retrospective – and prospective memories we sometimes get problems, but given the understanding that this is something connected to memories in the past and -future. More correctly, memories in the past are easy to understand, but in the future is more difficult! Prospective memories are really not a memory, but rater connected to your motivation to remember to remember, a type pre-motivation for remembering something. The classical prospective memories are connected to the action-cue thinking. Example go to school (action) at 07:30 AM (cue). Another interesting form of memories worth knowing about is infant memory. Since you did not have any language as an infant, you cannot recollect things as words, but rather in a form as emotions and sensations; long-term memory and semantics.

Memory will degrade when stored information is NOT in use for some time, this is called Transience. According to Chinese psychology this is information that apparently has lost its connection inside Yin Zhi. The really information depends on if it is stored in the short-term memory or in the long-term memory. The short-term memory will lose information that is not connected to words, and in the long-term memory will lose information that is not stored as a type of meaning. Normally we see drops of information little by little getting lost, and the only way to stop the leak is through repetition and use of the information. Another important aspect is the lack of attention. Just remember the times you were studying something and you did not pay attention to the information. This made you not store the information in a proper manner, this is called Absentmindedness. If information is stored as “pits and pieces” in a “here and there” manner in the memory everything become a useless collection on information garbage. You might feel like knowing something, but in real life you do not know anything. Another important aspect is the repetition of information inside the frame work of the short-term memory. If you actively work to keep some distinct information inside the short-term memory for a prolonged period of time we normally say that this memory is consolidated into the long-term memory, but this does not automatically give us a proper long-term memory! This is a short-term memory that you will remember for a long time. A proper long-term memory might be freely accessed by Shen and Zhi need to be able to connect the pieces of information that is needed. When information is stored in Yi for a prolonged time we find this information to give direction in Hun and to be a root to a general anxiety and worries. It is normal to experience Kidney zang symptoms like anxiety and unexplainable fear if we have information in limbo. The mind does not know of this memory and following you develop a feeling of insecurity and the anxiety level increase. The other interesting aspect occurs when you are stressed. Stress increases your levels of cortisol, and that makes it more difficult for you to save the information in both Yi and Zhi. Excitement is the antagonist that makes information to be saved better. Just think about the children remembering everything about the superheroes, but to remember the conjugations of a simple verb seems impossible for them.

Memory consists according to Chinese psychology of three variables: Retention- , Reactivation -, and Reconstruction of information. This implies that a person is able to absorb information, save the information, find back to the correct information, and reuse the information again. Only when the three components are present we might say that you have memory. To teach with a stick in the hand will not improve the memory capacity.
The Chinese psychology focuses strongly on the central role that genetics plays in memory and memory work. All genetic connections are related to Li and the congenital essence. The actual memory SYSTEM are related to Kidney zang and thereby Li and the congenital essence. The actual FUNCTION of the memory system is connected to multiple organs and mental aspects. To show the intimate connection between memory and the congenital essence we can look at ageing. Aging is the classical example of weakening of the congenital essence. With age we find more memory loss specifically related to the order of things, loss of context and problems with prospective memory (future time). Older persons will have a congenital essence xu, and is prone to forget what was first (for example, the order of the pin code), to forget the situation some information was given under, and further on they tend to forget appointments. As a conclusion memory are intimately related to congenital essence.

Our memory is in general of a selective nature; depending on what is happening you focus on distinct aspects in the happening. This is the core when wanting to memorize something. First you focus on the aspect you want to memorize. Then you have to create a type of memory map, a history or pictures. A Roun personality will be better in memorizing visually than the other personalities, making this personality very good in remembering what you observed. A Teche personality is good in remembering context and the actual analytical process. The more we play around with the information, the greater chance for our mind to create memories of the information. It is said that the strength of neurons increases when you connect information. The stronger neurons the bigger chance for remembering information for later. For example if you want to remember a face easy you need your brain to relate the face to something. Just remembering a plain face is difficult. That is why you should scan the face for some special information; a big nose, a spot around the eyes or nice lips. To find aspects we should see for what we expect to see, not what is there. Then you will see clearly what stands out. A cool trick is to ask a person for his name. Then you connect the name to the special aspect in his face. Inside yourself you ask yourself what is special in this face, and at the same time you picture the name into the face. When you really get skills you might develop special imagines of different common names ready to visualize into the face of people. In that way you might with great ease remember the name when observing peoples face. Another interesting trick to use is intimately related to the biochemistry of the memory. Remember that a memory is stored in chemicals. If you add something new into a memory you will lose something from the initial memory. Something, some information will not survive the new mix of chemicals. When you blend in some new information into an old memory you will transform the old memory or perhaps forget it. The more similar the information that blends in is with the original information, the bigger chance for a memory correlation. A memory correlation occurs when the mind change old information for new information. It is possible to learn to forget something, but you need to replace the old with something new. If a person experiences a trauma we find this relatively permanent in duration, but if the person repeats trauma related information multiple times with a touch of new innocent information we find the trauma for fade. To add false information is to deliberately change a memory or contaminate a memory. The best way is the 2:1 ratio. In the 2:1 ratio a person will be told one fact about something and then another fact (two correct) and then he will be told one false. The person tends to let the third information pass the filter and make it enter the memory as a truth. There the false information will contaminate the truth. Of course, if the person never uses this false information we will find it fade away and become lost in Zhi Yin.

The classical memory model within Chinese psychology starts with the absorption of information by Yi. The normal flow of information is from Yi to Hun. Hun will then use the information. This information might be seen as the short-term memory information in use. Repeated information, frequently used and extra strong information will be sent directly to Zhi. Zhi might be seen as the long-term memory. When a plan is sent to Zhi from Shen, Zhi will connect stored information to that plan. On interesting aspect here is how we actually store our information in our memory. Chinese psychology has an interesting way to explain how we do it, and it has all to do with Hun. Our Hun is related to visual aspects and how we visualize aspects internally. When we move around we will create a type of internal image sensation of where we are. This is related to our internal system; the Yin aspect of Hun – the sensation of movement and changes in Hun. In plane words we might call this a type of GPS system in the brain. Hun will according to the charge in its Yin localize the memories in its proper place. When you need to recall the information in Yi or Zhi you need Yi Yang or Zhi Yang to actively go into the storage Yi Yin and Zhi Yin to find the relevant information. Here is the clue, to be able to recall the information Hun Yang need to be present. Hun Yang carries the key to our memory. Because when we want to recall information we need to FIND the information. It is not sufficient just to store and to recall information. We need to find the information, localize where it is stored and take it out. The information will not come out by itself. Hun Yang knows more or less where it is stored according to its internal visualization. Just think about when you went to the kitchen to get something. When you reached the kitchen you discovered that you have forgotten what. Going back to the living room you remember what it where. Meaning the sensation of where you are helps you with recovering information. Following Hun Yang is responsible for localizing the storage place in Yi and Zhi and to put information in the storage. At the same time Hun Yang is responsible for finding back to the information in Yi and Zhi. Here it is nice to remember that when a person has a lot to think about we find the mental activity in Hun filling up. When the mental activity reaches Duliang (tolerance level) in Hun we find Hun Fanying (mirror) itself in Po. Looking back to Hun in this exact moment we find this hyperactivity in Hun transforming the Liver qi. When Duliang is passed we normally say that we have Liver qi stagnation.


It is now it really get interesting! Looking at the interactions between the Zang organs we find that Liver zang is responsible for giving Yin to Kidney zang and Yang to Spleen Zang. This means that Liver qi stagnation will lead to the liver to give fewer products to these two Zang organs. Let us start with Spleen zang. Spleen zang will receive less Yang from Liver zang when we have Liver qi stagnation due to hyperactivity in Hun. This will create a state of Spleen Yang xu with symptoms as loose stools, fatigue and fatigue. At the same time it is important that we remember that Spleen zang are intimate related to Yi, making a Liver qi stagnation creating a Yi Yang xu. The master symptom from a Yi yang xu is a reduced interest in collecting new information. Depression might be another word to describe a Yi yang xu. Liver qi stagnation will also send less Yin to Kidney zang, and thereby create a Kidney Yin xu. A Kidney yin xu will normally create less urination, darkness under the eyes and lower back pain. If we relate Kidney zang to its proper mental aspect Zhi we will find another interesting aspect. A Kidney yin xu will lead to a Zhi Yin xu state. The common symptoms from a Zhi Yin xu are an increased activity in Zhi. When the activity increases the person start to get elevated levels of anxiety, fear and start to feel desperations. The explanation of the Yi Yang xu and Zhi Yin xu might be found in the defense mechanism that manifests when you have hyperactivity in Hun with full blown Liver qi stagnation. When the mind work to the extreme you need to reduce the NEW entering information, but at the same time you need to use the STORED information better; giving us less interest for new things and perhaps with a touch of apathy. At the same time we get an inner turbo and anxiety. In short, Liver qi stagnation might cause a Yi Yang xu and a Zhi Yin xu that manifests as a clinical depression.

Another important aspect within Chinese psychology is emotional memory. As we know Shen works the information and takes decisions based on its content. This process is continuous and without pause. In the moment emotions starts circulating in the body interesting things start to happen. The emotional charged information passes Shen differently. Normal information passes Shen in Yang areas. In Yang areas in Shen everything is processed quickly and efficient without much thinking and extras. The emotional charged information will go deeper into Shen and be processed in Yin areas. In Yin areas in Shen we find the processing go slower and the person start feeling restlessness in the heart, palpitations and other light physiological symptoms normally related to Heart zang. This emotional amplifier in Shen will cause additional activity in Hun. Heart zang gives Yang to Liver zang. If Shen get an increased activity we will find and increase in Yang in Hun. The chance for reaching a Duliang in Hun will increase. In Chinese medicine we often relate this type of symptoms to the divergent meridians, organic part, but that is another story.






The writer of this article gives seminars in Chinese medicine and Chinese psychology all over the world! Go to this page to find out how.

One thought on “All what you need to know about Memory in Chinese medicine

  1. Reblogged this on Nils and commented:

    This is an article I wrote about memory some time ago. Everything you need to know about memory are to be found in it.


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