Why Do Our Brains Remember Certain Words Over Others?

Is there some sort of weird trick to this thing?
two women compare notes as they study together

Despite our best efforts, vocabulary memorization will probably never be backed by a foolproof strategy. It takes time and repetition to get new words to move into your long-term memory, and even then, long-term memory isn’t permanent memory.

Besides — some words are just destined to stick in your memory better than others, and seemingly without rhyme or reason. Why is that our brains seem to latch on to certain words or phrases over others? And perhaps more importantly, can you work with your brain, and not against it, in your efforts to Learn All The Words?

Why Brains Are Like That

Brains are kind of like computers — they have a limited amount of storage space, which means they sometimes have to erase old data to make room for new information, which can affect vocabulary memorization.

A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that the brain actually discards memories that are very similar to memories that we’re actively trying to remember. In other words, when we prioritize a certain memory by repeatedly concentrating on it or bringing it to mind, the brain will allow similar memories to fade into the background so that they don’t compete too much with each other — kind of like a “use it or lose it” maxim for our brain muscles.

Researchers had study participants memorize a single word linked to two different images — specifically, they remembered that the word “sand” corresponded to a picture of Marilyn Monroe, as well as to a hat. Thanks to the magic of science, the researchers could actually identify the specific patterns created by their brains every time they thought “sand: Marilyn Monroe” or “sand: hat.” Then, they told the participants to focus on remembering the Marilyn association and showed them the word “sand” over and over again on a screen. Gradually, their brains stopped displaying the hat pattern as the Marilyn one remained steadfast.

However, this is not entirely consistent with what psychologist Jennie Pyers and her team found while studying the vocabulary memorization tendencies of bilingual people. According to their research, bilinguals experience “tip-of-tongue moments” more frequently than monolinguals — in other words, moments when they might struggle to remember a certain word they want to use.

Pyers believes this is due to the fact that we remember words the more we use them, so rarely used words tend to fall by the wayside. And when you’re bilingual, you have more of these “inactive” words stored in your arsenal.

Her research confirmed that monolinguals experienced fewer tip-of-the-tongue memory lapses than bilinguals, but she specifically compared a group of monolinguals with Spanish-English bilinguals and American Sign Language-English bilinguals. Since sign language is silent, this would nullify any claim of similar-sounding words competing for attention. And as it turned out, the sign language speakers experienced as many tip-of-tongue moments as the Spanish speakers.

It may not be the way words sound, then, that makes the difference, but rather their conceptual significance. Either way, what both of these studies confirm is that the brain is frequently determining what to prioritize, because we can’t be aware of everything all at once. And when it comes to vocabulary memorization, the words we use more frequently — or perhaps the words that are more immediately relevant to our lives — are much more likely to stick.

Of course, this doesn’t entirely account for the way our brains sometimes latch onto seemingly random words and memories that were never reinforced by repetition — and yet we remember them forever. Oftentimes, we remember things more if they’re linked to emotionally charged events, which is why a lot of people can remember exactly where they were on September 11, 2001. That’s because epinephrine and cortisol, which are both stress hormones, help cement memories in our brains. Conversely, high levels of anxiety can actually cause you to blank on what you’re learning. So if you register a new word while you’re feeling particularly sad, joyous, angry, excited, or embarrassed, it might stick with you. But if you’re stressing out before a test or putting too much pressure on yourself to ace your new language, you might actually be working against yourself.

Vocabulary Memorization Strategies For Your Arsenal

Knowing what we know about the brain, what are some effective tips for vocabulary memorization? Here are a few of our favorites:

Spaced repetition. This is actually the mechanism that’s built into the Babbel app, because it’s a proven means of moving information into your long-term memory. By continually exposing yourself to the same information repeatedly at strategically spaced intervals, you’ll be that much more likely to retain that vocab for good.

Curate your word selection. You can’t expect to know every word in a given language, so why not focus on the ones that are most interesting and relevant to you? Expert language learner Luca Lampariello recommends first familiarizing yourself with the most common words in a new language — the vocabulary set required for core basic fluency — to then move on to more niche terms that have special meaning for you (in other words, an emotional resonance).

Learn in full sentences. It’s tempting, especially when you’re new to a given language, to translate everything word-for-word into your native language. But one study found that it’s actually more effective to learn new words in their natural context, not as they translate into your native tongue. That doesn’t mean you can entirely avoid the translations — how else would you know what the words meant? — but it’s a good idea to try to begin using them contextually right away.

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