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How much do you know about the way your memory works? By understanding your memory, you can make the process of learning English much more efficient.

Today, let’s take a look at some memory effects and investigate how you can incorporate them into your study routine!

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  • Distinctiveness (noun): The quality of being unique or different from others.
    • The distinctiveness of the red, larger font in the text made it stand out from the rest of the content on the page.
  • Stand out (phrasal verb): To be noticeably different or conspicuous.
    • The student’s creative presentation on the topic made it stand out from the other class projects.
  • Primacy (noun): The state or quality of being first in importance or order.
    • The primacy effect suggests that the information presented at the beginning of the list is often the most memorable.
  • Recency (noun): The state or quality of being most recent or last in order.
    • While the primacy effect focuses on the beginning of the list, the recency effect highlights the significance of information presented at the end.
  • Senses (noun): The faculties of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
    • There is a strong connection between our senses and memory.
  • Mood (noun): The emotional state or disposition of an individual at a particular time.
    • Using scents and tastes to create a conducive study mood can enhance your learning experience.
  • Chunks (noun): Grouped items or pieces of data that are easier to remember.
    • When studying vocabulary, it’s helpful to break it down into smaller, manageable chunks for better retention.
  • Retain (verb): To keep or hold onto something, especially in memory.
    • By using chunking techniques, students can retain more information in their working memory.

Memory Effects and Quirks

Our memory is a curious thing. We rely upon in every single day, but how well do we really understand how it works?

A few weeks ago, I released an episode on different study and memorisation theories, and in the course of researching I stumbled upon some interesting techniques and memory effects.

Did you know that the size of our working and short-term memory is limited? Did you know that the order you remember things can impact the quality of your memory? Did you know that the smells and tastes you experience while studying can help you learn?

This episode is going to look into they way our brains work and use this information to provide guidance and advice.

Understanding the way our memory works will allow you to make your English study routine more efficient and effective.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at 4 different memory related effects and quirks!

The Von Restorff Effect

Imagine you have a piece of paper full of English vocabulary terms you want to remember. All of the terms are written in the same font, colour, and size… apart from one.

One term is bright red, twice as large as the other words, and written using a different font.

If you study all the terms of that piece of paper, you are more likely to remember the red, large, and differently written terms than all the others.

This is called the Von Restorff Effect and is also known as the “isolation effect” or the “distinctiveness principle.”

According to the Von Restorff Effect, individuals are more likely to remember an item or piece of information that stands out from its surroundings in a list or a group of similar items. This effect was first described by German psychiatrist Hedwig von Restorff in 1933, hence the name.

Simply put, when you are presented with information in a list or group, you are more likely to remember a distinct item which differs from others in some noticeable way.  

This distinctiveness can result from differences in colour, size, shape, font, or anything noticeable. This distinct item becomes more memorable because it captures your attention and stands out from the other items.

The exact mechanism or science behind the Von Restorff Effect is not fully understood, but it is thought to be related to the brain’s tendency to allocate more resources to processing and encoding novel or distinctive information.

As language learners and lifelong studiers, this effect suggests that making important information stand out can enhance our memory and recall of that information.

How can you factor the Von Restorff effect into your study habits?

Well… the Von Restorff effect is simple and straightforward. When studying, make the most important information or the information that you are struggling to master, distinctive.

  • You could use a highlighter to highlight words, phrases, or ideas in your notes that you need to remember. This will make the important information stand out in your memory.
  • Use distinctive shapes to outline important information in textbooks.
  • If making study materials like flashcards, make the items you are struggling to remember look different in appearance.

Importantly, you shouldn’t overuse this technique.

I remember studying for my school exams as a 16-year-old in the UK and using a highlighter in my notes. Rather than just highlighting the most important information or the concepts I was struggling most to remember, I highlighted almost everything.

This removed the distinctiveness from my study material. Rather than the highlighted information being unique and memorable… it was the same as everything else.

In summary, make the information you want or need to remember distinct, identifiable, and presented differently from the rest of your study material. This will make that information stand out in your memories!

The Serial Position Effect

Another memory quirk we need to pay attention to when studying is the serial position effect, which can be broken down into the primacy effect and the recency effect.

Let me try to explain in simple terms.

The serial position effect refers to the fact that the order, or position, of information you are trying to learn effects how easy or difficult it is to remember that information.

Understanding how your brain works and knowing that the order of information you are studying is important, can really help you to remember more things with greater efficiency.

For the purpose of today’s episode, let’s split the serial positon effect into two other related effects: the primacy effect and recency effect.

The Primacy Effect

The primacy effect refers to the fact that people better remember and give greater importance to items or information presented at the beginning of a list, sequence, or presentation.

It is like the saying make your first impressions count. The first piece of information is the one you are most likely to remember.

Items presented early in a list are more likely to be stored in long-term memory and recalled later. This is thought to occur because people have more time to process and encode the information at the beginning of the list, and these items receive more attention.

In other words, when you are studying, the first things you study will be processed into your long-term memory and be easier to recall in the future!

The Recency Effect

On the other side of the Serial Position Effect is the Recency effect.

While you are likely to remember the first pieces of information presented to you, you are also likely to remember the last pieces of information.

It might sound confusing that you remember both the first and last pieces of information presented, but there are psychological reasons for it. While the Primacy Effect works with information being stored in your long-term memory, the recency effect is thought to have more to do with your short-term or working memory.

The information at the end of a list is likely still in your short-term memory and are therefore easily retrievable. However, they are not in your long-term memory – so understanding the recency effect might have more relevance when you are cramming last minute for an exam or a job interview.

How to use the Serial Position Effect?

Educators, advertisers, and presenters often take advantage of the primacy effect by placing important information or key messages at the beginning of a lesson, advertisement, or speech, recognizing that this position is more likely to make a lasting impression on their audience.

The most important thing, however, is to realise that the middle section of information is the area you are least likely to remember.

Therefore, you need to change the order of your vocabulary flashcards or review notes every day – so you can try to commit more information to your long-term memory! Put the concepts you struggle with or the vocabulary you can’t remember at the beginning or end of your vocabulary lists!

The Proust Effect

Marcel Proust was a French novelist considered by many to be one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

He also coined the term “involuntary memory” and gave his name to this effect.

The Proust Effect is a phenomenon in psychology that occurs when a specific smell, taste, sound, or something similar triggers a vivid and involuntary recollection of a past memory or experience.

Proust famously described such an experience in his novel “In Search of Lost Time. Specifically, in his novel the narrator dips a madeleine into tea which unexpectedly evokes a flood of memories from his childhood.

The Proust Effect highlights the strong connection between our senses and memory. It demonstrates that the senses have a unique and powerful ability to bring back long forgotten or deeply buried memories. The effect can involve any of the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.

How to use the Proust Effect to study?

One article about study tips I found from the University of Nebraska recommended using scents and tastes as “brain-boosters.” For example, drink strong coffee while you are studying vocabulary about politics or spray a flower smell when you are listening to Thinking in English.

When you want to recall this information, you can think about the smells and tastes and, in theory, it should be easier to recall.

However, this advice is a little misleading. This is not exactly how the Proust Effect works.

The Proust Effect seems to work much more effectively with emotional memories than with working memories.

What we can do with the Proust Effect is use it to put ourselves in the emotional state suitable for studying.

For example, if you drink a cup of tea when you are studying, eventually tea will become associated with study in your memories. I’ve noticed this in my own life. I make a pot of tea just before I start working and it really puts me in the mood to write episodes.

There are other ways you can achieve the same results. Perhaps have a place in your house or apartment where you only study – when you sit in that chair, you associate it purely with studying. Or you have an outfit you wear when you are studying. Or a snack you eat when studying.

All of these things can help you to get in the studying mood, and improve your focus!

Miller’s Law

The final memory effect or fact I want to mention today might be one of the most important.

Miller’s Law, also known as Miller’s Magic Number, is a concept in psychology that suggests that the average human can hold about seven pieces of information in their working memory.

In a 1956 paper, the psychologist George Miller discussed the limitations of our memory. He proposed that for the majority of people, working memory has a limited capacity and can effectively manage around 7 (between 5 and 9) items or chunks of information.

These memory chunks can be individual items or pieces of information that are grouped together, making them easier to remember. Miller’s Magic Number has since become a widely recognized and accepted concept in the field of cognitive psychology.

Here is the implication for us as language learners. Our short-term memories can only hold about 7 chunks of information. That’s not a lot.

However, a chunk of information can be group of related pieces of information. According to the American Psychological Association this process is called “chunking.”

They say chunking is “the process by which the mind divides large pieces of information into smaller units (chunks) that are easier to retain in short-term memory. As a result of this recoding, one item in memory (e.g., a keyword or key idea) can stand for multiple other items (e.g., a short list of associated points).”

Chunking is how we remember things – if you have to remember a list on numbers (like a phone number), an address, or a series of names, we remember them in chunks rather than individual pieces of information.

The other day I was on the phone to my bank, and they asked me to confirm the final 2 numbers of my phone number. I couldn’t remember just the final 2 numbers separate to the “chunk” of information. UK phone numbers can have 11 numbers (more than 7 pieces of information) but I remember my own number in 4 chunks.

How to use this in your study?

Keep in mind the limited nature of our working memories.

When studying vocabulary, for example, group related terms together so you remember them together. You can group these terms based on meaning, sound, or whatever help you to remember!

Studying vocabulary in chunks, as opposed to one long list, will really help you to retain more information.   

Final Thought

Today we’ve looked at four different memory effects and tried to relate them to studying and language learning.

The Von Restorff Effect suggests that we remember distinctive pieces of information with greater efficiency. Using techniques like highlighting or outlining with clearly different colours can make it much easier for you to recall that information in the future.

The Serial Position Effect suggests that we remember information at the beginning and end of lists of information, but for different reasons. This means that you should study the content you struggle with most at the beginning of your study session. And when you are trying to learn something like a list of vocabulary, you should constantly change the order of vocabulary as we struggle to remember things in the middle.

The Proust Effect relates to the connection between the senses and our memories. Try associating certain smells or tastes with the mood of studying.

And finally, Miller’s Law states that the average person can only remember 7 chunks of information at a time, so learning content in chunks is a great way to maximise our brain’s capacity!

Hopefully you can apply this information and improve the efficiency of your English learning and study habits!

What do you think?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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