The Science of Memory
Let's get started I want to talk about memory uh because that is the primary challenge of language learning people think that, uh the difficulties there are with pronunciation or with all these you know, with grammar the grammars heart is with, you know, motivation these air all there but there's this sense in our culture that adults are terrible languages and kids are really good at them and that we lose we have some sort of language gene or something that we lose by the age of seven or twelve or whatever age people decide that we lose this ability um and we have this belief because we show up in france and we have we encounter a five year old french kid who speaks better french than we do and we get angry at this child because this why why have I been working so hard and you just speak this perfectly? Why can you correct on my grammar? It is not fair you've been working in this class and what's actually not fair is that you're making an unfair comparison. You're comparing yourself wh...
o has had fifty a hundred maybe two hundred hours of classroom time and friends to this kid with fifteen thousand hours of french and the kid beats you and they should I mean, if you spent fifteen thousand hours speaking friend she would speak french just fine um when you actually make the fair comparison when you take okay what about a kid with five hundred hours of spanish you know he just moved he moved at the age of four to spain and has sort of encountered and spoken spanish for five hundred hours and you compare that to an adult who has had five hundred hours of spanish classroom time or whatever uh the adult will win every time we are very good at learning languages were very bad at remembering things and so what this course really focuses on with this really sort of core of this course aside from all the tips and all the everything else is how do our brains work? How do we remember things and how can we take advantage of how that works too? You get all that data all those words and all those grammar rules and everything in our ads so that it sticks so let's figure out how to not forget to talk about forgetting let's talk about what is remembering what is a memory um men so to do that let's talk about a cookie because I like cookies in your brain when you encounter cookie when you encountered a cookie for the very first time uh to simplify a bit areas of your brain sort of light up in response to different stimuli so you taste this cookie and the areas of your brain that process the taste of cookie will light up we'll get active um there is another of your brain that handles smell and so you smell this cookie it's related to taste and so those areas will light up the smell of cookies um you perhaps had an emotional response the first time you had a cookie you're like wow, this was really good you know you the happiness happiness is a complex thing I'm sure it lights up all sorts of part of your brain but still it lights up in a certain pattern ah and also even the sound your apparent let's say you encounter this you were three years old your parents said hey, do you want a cookie and they offer this the wag this thing in front of your face and cookie this sound is now in your head and this sound processing centers of your brain will light up none of these things are a memory all these things were just sort of response to stimulus. You see a red light, your brain lights up in a certain way you see a blue light your brain lights up in a certain way the memory are the connections between these things there is a law made by donald hebb in the nineteen fifties he sort of came up with this idea um that's neurons that fire together wire together basically if you see a cookie at the same time as you smell a cookie, then the sight of this thing and the smell of this thing will link together and form a memory if you smell this thing and you see this thing at the same time as you have ai your parents as cookie you want a cookie now cookie is connected to these two areas in your brain you know you have a little network if it the same time you eat this cookie and you feel really good and you're like, wow, that was really great in the taste lights up in the emotions light up now you have this big old sense of what a cookie is this's a memory that you're not going to forget something that's really very sticky and when you say something like okay, well, the german word for cookie is texas. Well, texas hasn't none of that caixa has a tiny little little network. It has the network between the sound of the word cookie because you're not thinking about how it tastes to the sound of the word kicks in and that is why you forget it within the day or two that's why these things have sort of drip out of your head so let's look at what makes something actually stick what makes this cookie so much better than texas and I'm gonna break this discussion up into two little chunks levels of processing talks about this sort of stickiness thing talks about what makes cookies really really good and memorable and what makes cakes and not in space competition is going to be this discussion of well no matter what we're learning how do we keep this in our heads? How do we keep this in our heads long term so let's get started levels of processing came out of the nineteen seventies much of this stuff comes out of the nineteen seventies it's basically a bunch of stories of cognitive psychologist testing college students I'm assuming because they work for cheap or just available and so one group of cognitive psychologists gave a bunch of college students a test they basically used a set of words very simple words things like bear apple pizza no water table just sort of short simple words that are concrete and they asked them four types of questions the first type of question acts about thie structure spelling of the word they would say okay, well bear how many letters are in the word there you are there any bees in the word apple this sort of thing where you don't have to think about anything except for okay how do you spell that? And what is it? Okay there's apple has pie's not be so um then they would ask them questions about the sound of the word they would say does apple rhyme with pear does bear ryan with pear and you would have to think about the sound of these words they would ask them questions about the actual content of the word the concept they would say is bare a type of tool you know it's student a type of tool maybe is you know the screwdriver type of tool this sort of thing where you have to actually think about what is this thing no our bears harry well yes okay our apples harry shouldn't be um and then they would have a fourth category of questions they would ask about personal connections do you like bears uh this would often show up with adjectives they would say are you red are you sad? Are you big? You know are you green these sorts of things where you really have to deal with well and my green well I mean no uh and you would have to think about this connection between you and and and this this word and then they would distract them for five to ten minutes with some meaningless task and then they gave them a surprise memory test they said write down all of the words we ask you questions about did we ask you about bears? Did we ask you about water? Do we ask you about paris tell us what we asked you about and what they found is that there was a very predictable pattern in terms of what people remember if they asked about structure generally, people forgot when you think about the spelling of the word, you don't remember it the idea of okay, there are five letters in the word kicks it well, who cares? Your brain doesn't, and so you forget. Um, when you deal with sound, you remember mohr, you remember about twice as much when so these, when they were asked about questions like does bear rhyme with pear? Generally, people remember twice as much as how many letters in the word there, um, but still it's generally forgettable. This is the experience we all have in sort of parties where you go to the party and someone says, oh, my name is, you know, swahili, and you're like, I have already forgotten your name, uh, because sound doesn't really stick it's, and it shouldn't there's a filter, this is sort of a filter where you don't actually want to memorize everything. You hear the idea of being able to go through your day and listen to the radio and be able to say verbatim what you've heard throughout the day is would be overwhelming, and so your brain doesn't. Your brain forgets the things it doesn't need, and sound is something it doesn't need. It's where you get into concept where you get into what is this thing you know how many legs does a bear have where you really have to think like no I'm looking at a bear in my head and I'm counting that's when things stick and that's when things should stick I mean that's you know the tigers are dangerous you know our tigers dangerous yes ok well now these were things that are important it's not who cares that tiger has five letters and it is important that tigers have teeth uh and so concept is twice as memorable again it's sound concept is where things really start to stick on personal connection is sort of the most concept of concepts it's the thing that is most important to you you know our tigers dangerous yes you know, if there's a tiger behind me what should I do? That is the most important thing and so that's where we start actually really, really, really remembering things said concept and personal connection that things really start sticking for good uh that gives us a lot of really important consequences when it comes to language learning um yeah, because we're always dealing with thes thesis four things this idea of structure and spelling sound concept and personal connection and so in the beginning when you start trying to learn something like mandarin chinese you are running against the most forgettable thing you could possibly do uh this on the far left is the mandarin for cat as soon as this lied goes away you will forget it because you don't have anything you don't have any structure I mean you don't know what parts of this word exists like like over here is this are there how many lines of these you know was this one movement you know which lines are made in which order uh are these three things? Is this one thing? What does this symbol even mean? Is this just a random collection of lines? You don't have the structure you need to remember this word the russian one is a little better I mean, you're you're looking at something that's sort of better you're leering saying ok, well this is like a it's like a backwards r kind of thing I recognize that this is like a three kind of it's like a bi I I I guess maybe kay, you have a little bit of structure to go on but nonetheless it's not familiar and so it will vanish too. It will vanish a little slower than the mandarin, but it will vanish. So the first thing you really kind of need is some structure, but even with structure this isn't particularly good if I tell you my e mail password is three qh ampersand p l y please don't steal my email um you're not going to forget that too you have all the structure you need these they're all familiar letters and symbols but doesn't sound like anything it doesn't this is not something that sticks uh this point we're at the level of how many letters are in the word bear really forgettable but a lot less forgettable than mandarin word for cat then you start getting into sound territory and sound is generally where we're stuck in language classes generally people do say okay, well, kecks is the word for cooking hunt is the word for dog and so you do hear sounds and you do connect them and so this is generally where we're at there is a continuum here if I start, I say, okay, well, well, the hungarian word for pictures finn keep this has a bunch of unfamiliar sounds in it and so it's gonna be hard to retain them. My favorite word in hungary, stinky plaza keep it's the word for camera like you've already forgotten that there's nothing that sticks er and so the less familiar the sounds are, the more forgettable they are. But you know this this sort of extends all the way to having a teacher with a really, really bad american accent and says okay, well, the word for this is mocked or like that will stick better then, if your teacher has a really good accent because the sounds are more familiar, I don't recommend teachers having terrible accents, but uh, from a memory standpoint, if you're trying to remember a word like mocked or it will stick a lot better than finn keep but still, this is where we all were stuck. This is where we've taken classes and have not worked, and so we need to get past this and so let's start looking at concepts. There is a range and concept too. If I want to learn. If I tell you that my birthday's in june, for instance, that is a concept and that will stick, that means a lot more than mocked or or kicks it or something like that. Joon is a thing, but june is not a thing you can see. June is not a thing you can taste or touch, and so joon is less sticky than something like a cat. No cat is really kind of um and so what we want is to make all of our words when we learned them as concrete as possible and there's a trick for this and the trick for this involves images. I think this is a cat, but this is a picture of a cat and again in the nineteen seventies, people started investigating our memory for pictures um there was this one study where they took college students as always and they stuck him in a room as always uh and showed them images for magazines they showed them I think five hundred fifty images or so and they showed them at a rate of I think every I think was like every three seconds they show a new ones go image image and they did this for two three hours I don't know what they paid these students and afterwards they, uh waited a day they brought the students back and then they showed them to images at a time when they said ok, here are two images one of them you saw yesterday one of them is new tell me which one you saw and on average students remembered their these images uh it was ninety eight point five percent of the time a fabulous memory for images uh and that's this is not people with photographic memories this's all of us we are really good at learning images. Ah, and so they tried to push it and they said, okay, what happens if we tried three thousand images over three days? What happens if we tried ten thousand images over five days like eight hour days on so they did this they did a ten thousand image study where they stuck college students in a room for five straight days doing this for eight hours a day for five days straight and on day six they tested them um and they found that even with ten thousand images there recall rate was something around I think was eighty three percent we haven't basically unlimited memory for images and we know why I mean images are the most concept of concept you cannot look at this and say that has three letters in it it's not what you think you think that's the thing that says me out that's you as soon as you encounter a picture of a cat you you you go in your head to the most concrete of concepts the problem is that we're not trying to learn images were trying to learn words and so the question is what happens if you stick words with images what happens if you try to learn something like that and you stick it with an image of a cat? Is this better or worse and fortunately this turns out to be a lot better um when you have a word with an image your brain reacts by trying to figure out what is the connection between these two things even if the word has nothing to do with it uh I use an example of my book uh of of like a box and I say apples are delicious and you look at this thing and there's no connection between apples are delicious and above and yet you you have to think of what is that connection? Why on earth with his author choose to stick apples are delicious next to a box and that forces you to think that forces you to remember this phrase apples are delicious because you're like oh, that was the phrase that someone stuck next to a box what a weird thing to do er and so that is thiss wonderful thing in our favor because we can use this to memorize words in a way that forces us to think about concepts and makes them stick even better than just pictures and we've already established pictures are wonderful for memory. There is one step that's better it's fifty percent to actually to one hundred percent better. I found some other later research after after landing on that fifty percent figure that gun a few studies it was like it was twice as good as normal concepts is things like cat were do you like cats? Um but if I'm gonna be learning got and saying ok, this is the italian word for cat well, got the also applies to my own cat toe lily um actually my parents cat and they have this wonderful gray cat her name is lily she's awesome. She rolls on her belly and you competitors as long as you wish uh that is my god and that becomes even more sticky. That that becomes something that's basically unforgettable. And so we're going to be using this concept to make all of your words stick a lot better.