Improve learning with co-occurring novelty

  • An animal study shows that following learning with a novel experience makes the learning stronger.
  • A human study shows that giving information positive associations improves your memory for future experiences with similar information.

We know that the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in making strong memories. Now a mouse study helps us get more specific — and suggests how we can help ourselves learn.

The study, involving 120 mice, found that mice tasked with remembering where food had been hidden did better if they had been given a novel experience (exploring an unfamiliar floor surface) 30 minutes after being trained to remember the food location.

This memory improvement also occurred when the novel experience was replaced by the selective activation of dopamine-carrying neurons in the locus coeruleus that go to the hippocampus. The locus coeruleus is located in the brain stem and involved in several functions that affect emotion, anxiety levels, sleep patterns, and memory. The dopamine-carrying neurons in the locus coeruleus appear to be especially sensitive to environmental novelty.

In other words, if we’re given attention-grabbing experiences that trigger these LC neurons carrying dopamine to the hippocampus at around the time of learning, our memories will be stronger.

Now we already know that emotion helps memory, but what this new study tells us is that, as witness to the mice simply being given a new environment to explore, these dopamine-triggering experiences don’t have to be dramatic. It’s suggested that it could be as simple as playing a new video game during a quick break while studying for an exam, or playing tennis right after trying to memorize a big speech.

Remember that we’re designed to respond to novelty, to pay it more attention — and, it seems, that attention is extended to more mundane events that occur closely in time.

Emotionally positive situations boost memory for similar future events

In a similar vein, a human study has found that the benefits of reward extend forward in time.

In the study, volunteers were shown images from two categories (objects and animals), and were financially rewarded for one of these categories. As expected, they remembered images associated with a reward better. In a second session, however, they were shown new images of animals and objects without any reward. Participants still remembered the previously positively-associated category better.

Now, this doesn’t seem in any way surprising, but the interesting thing is that this benefit wasn’t seen immediately, but only after 24 hours — that is, after participants had slept and consolidated the learning.

Previous research has shown similar results when semantically related information has been paired with negative, that is, aversive stimuli.



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Sleep helps you remember new names

  • A small study has found that a night's sleep helps you better remember new names.

Sleep, as I have said on many occasions, helps your brain consolidate new memories. I have reported before on a number of studies showing how sleep helps the learning of various types of new information. Most of those studies have looked at procedural learning (learning new skills), or verbal learning. A new study adds to these by looking at face-name associations.

The small study, involving 14 young adults, found that that they were significantly better at remembering faces and names if they were given an opportunity to have a full night's sleep hours after seeing those faces and names for the first time.

Participants were shown 20 photos of faces with corresponding names and asked to memorize them. After a twelve-hour period, they were then shown the photos again with either a correct or incorrect name. They were also asked to rate their confidence in their answer. Each participant completed the test twice — once with an interval of sleep in between and once with a period of regular, waking day activities in between.

After a night's sleep, participants correctly matched 12% more of the faces and names, and were much more confident of their answers.

Of course, this is not a huge difference, given the small number of face-name pairs, and the sample is small. I would have also liked to see further testing 12 hours later, so that we could compare the effects of a day followed by a night, versus a night followed by a day (this would have required more stimuli and more participants, of course).

So, not madly exciting, but taken in context of other research, it adds to the growing evidence that sleep helps you consolidate new learning of all kinds.



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Mindfulness may increase susceptibility to false memories

  • Mindfulness meditation is associated in many studies with cognitive benefits, especially in attention.
  • In a new study, a brief guided meditation exercise increased students' false recognition of words as ones they had seen earlier.
  • It may be that the non-judgmental mindset encouraged by mindfulness meditation reduces people's ability to clearly remember the source of a memory, thus making them more susceptible to false memories.
  • Source memory also tends to be negatively affected by increasing age.

Mindfulness meditation is associated with various positive benefits, one of which is improved attention, but it might not be all good. A new study suggests that it may have negative cognitive consequences.

The study included three experiments, in the first two of which undergraduates carried out a 15-minute guided exercise: one group was instructed to focus attention on their breathing without judgment (mindfulness group); the other group was told to think about whatever came to mind (mind-wandering group; the control).

In the first experiment, 153 participants then studied a list of 15 words related to the concept of trash, but not including the word "trash". When then asked to recall as many of the words from the list as they could remember, 39% of the mindfulness group falsely recalled seeing the word "trash" on the list compared to only 20% of the mind-wandering group. There was no difference between the groups in the number of other words falsely recalled.

In the second experiment, 140 participants were compared to themselves, before and after the intervention. They all began by doing six of the same sort of word lists. They were then randomly assigned either the meditation exercise or the mind-wandering. This was then followed by a further six word lists.

Again, mindfulness participants were more likely to falsely recall the critical word than those who engaged in mind wandering. Those in the mind-wandering group showed no difference in performance on the word lists before and after, while those in the meditation group were significantly more likely to falsely remember the critical item. Again, there were no other differences in performance between the groups: they correctly recalled about the same number of words, and they falsely remembered about the same number of other words.

In the third experiment, 215 undergraduates had to determine whether a word had been presented earlier, where the words shown were all part of a strongly associated pair (e.g., foot-shoe). After seeing the 100 words (for 1.5 seconds each), they were then tested. Each word had an equal chance of being one of the words in the presented list, or its associated pair. All students were then given the 15-minute meditation exercise, before going through the process again.

Again, the rate of words correctly identified as seen before was about the same before and after the meditation exercise, but the rate of words falsely identified increased significantly after the exercise.

In all, then, it seems that mindfulness meditation increased participants' susceptibility to false memories, reducing their ability to differentiate items they actually encountered from items they only imagined (because of their strong association to the items encountered).

The researchers speculate that the mechanism that seems to underlie the benefits of mindfulness — judgment-free thoughts and feelings — might also affect people's ability to determine the origin of a given memory (source memory), because they have become less able to distinguish between externally occurring events and internally generated events.

Source memory is one of those memory domains that tend to be affected by aging. However, the benefits of meditation for improving attention — another area particularly affected by age — outweigh this downside. So I'm certainly not suggesting anyone should be put off by this finding!

An interesting question that remains to be answered is whether this negative effect on source memory is short-lived, or whether experienced meditators tend to have poorer source memory.


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Movements and images improve new vocabulary learning

  • Foreign words are learned better when gestures or pictures are used.
  • Imitating symbolic gestures is more beneficial than viewing illustrative pictures.
  • These benefits correlate with activity in specific brain regions.
  • The benefits are only found in translation tasks, not in free recall.

A small study using an artificial language adds to evidence that new vocabulary is learned more easily when the learner uses gestures.

“Vimmish”, the artificial language used in the study, follows similar phonetic rules to Italian. The German-speaking participants were given abstract and concrete nouns to learn over the course of a week. In the first experiment, the 21 subjects heard the words and their translations under one of three conditions:

  • with a video showing a symbolic gesture of the word's meaning, which they imitated
  • with a picture illustrating the word's meaning, which they traced in the air
  • with no gestures or pictures.

On the 8th day, the participants were tested while their brain activity was monitored. The test involved hearing the foreign word, then selecting the correct translation from four written options.

The researchers were interested in learning whether they could predict the learning condition from the brain activity patterns displayed when the participants were tested. They found that the gesture condition and control could be distinguished in two brain regions: a visual area that processes biological motion (part of the right superior temporal sulcus), and the left premotor cortex. Activity in these regions was also significantly correlated with performance. The picture condition and control could be distinguished in a visual area that processes objects (the right anterior lateral occipital cortex). There was a trend for this activity to correlate with performance, but it didn't reach significance.

Paper-and-pencil translation tests two and six months after learning showed that learning with gestures was significantly better than the other conditions. But note that there was no advantage for any condition in a free recall task.

A second experiment compared gesture and pictures in the more common picture scenario — participants only viewed the video or picture; there was no imitation. Unsurprisingly, there was no motor cortex involvement in this scenario: gesture and control conditions were distinguished only by activity in the biological motion part of the right superior temporal sulcus. The correlation of activity in the right anterior LOC with performance in the picture condition this time reached significance. But most importantly, this time the picture condition led to better translation accuracy than the other two conditions.

However, the most significant result is this: when both experiments were evaluated together, the gesture benefit in experiment 1 (when the participant copied the gesture) was greater than the picture benefit in the second experiment.

The findings are in keeping with other evidence that foreign words are learned more easily when multiple senses are involved.


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Implementation plans help those with low working memory capacity

  • Implementation plans are a strategy for helping you remember your intended future actions.
  • College students with low WMC performed a prospective memory task at the same level as those with a higher WMC, but only when they used a simple implementation plan.

I've written at length about implementation plans in my book “Planning to Remember: How to Remember What You're Doing and What You Plan to Do”. Essentially, they're intentions you make in which you explicitly tie together your intended action with a specific situational cue (such as seeing a post box).

A new study looked at the benefits of using an implementation intention for those with low working memory capacity.

The study involved 100 college students, of whom half were instructed to form an implementation intention in the event-based prospective memory task. The task was in the context of a lexical decision task in which the student had to press a different key depending on whether a word or a pseudo-word was presented, and to press the spacebar when a waiting message appeared between each trial. However (and this is the prospective element), if they saw one of four cue words, they were to stop doing the lexical task and say aloud both the cue word and its associated target word. They were then given the four word pairs to learn.

After they had mastered the word pairs, students in the implementation intention group were also given various sentences to say aloud, of the form: “When I see the word _______ (hotel, eraser, thread, credit) while making a word decision, I will stop doing the lexical decision task and call out _____-______ (hotel-glass, eraser-pencil, thread-book, credit-card) to the experimenter during the waiting message.” They said each sentence (relating to each word pair) twice.

Both groups were given a 5-minute survey to fill out before beginning the trials. At the end of the trials, their working memory was assessed using both the Operation Span task and the Reading Span task.

Overall, as expected, the implementation intention group performed significantly better on the prospective memory task. Unlike other research, there was no significant effect of working memory capacity on prospective memory performance. But this is because other studies haven't used implementation intentions — among those who made no such implement plans, low working memory capacity did indeed negatively affect prospective memory performance. However, those with low working memory capacity did just as well as those with high WMC when they formed implementation intentions (in fact, they did slightly better).

The most probable benefit of the strategy is that it heightened sensitivity to the event cues, something which is of particular value to those with low working memory capacity, who by definition have poorer attentional control.

It should be noted that this was an attentionally demanding task — there is some evidence that working memory ability only relates to prospective memory ability when the prospective memory task requires a high amount of attentional demand. But what constitutes “attentionally demanding” varies depending on the individual.

Perhaps this bears on evidence suggesting that a U-shaped function might apply, with a certain level of cognitive ability needed to benefit from implementation intentions, while those above a certain level find them unnecessary. But again, this depends on how attentionally demanding the task is. We can all benefit from forming implementation intentions in very challenging situations. It should also be remembered that WMC is affected not only more permanently by age, but also more temporarily by stress, anxiety, and distraction.

Of course, this experiment framed the situation in a very short-term way, with the intentions only needing to be remembered for about 15 minutes. A more naturalistic study is needed to confirm the results.


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Unfamiliar accents can make spoken words harder to remember

This is just a preliminary study presented at a recent conference, so we can't give it too much weight, but the finding is consistent with what we know about working memory, and it is of some usefulness.

The study tested the ability of young-adult native English speakers to store spoken words in short-term memory. The English words were spoken either with a standard American accent or with a pronounced but still intelligible Korean accent. Every now and then, the listeners (all unfamiliar with a Korean accent) would be asked to recall the last three words they had heard.

While there was no difference for the last and second-last words, the third word back was remembered significantly better when it was spoken in the familiar accent (80% vs 70%).

The finding suggests that the effort listeners needed to put into understanding the foreign accent used up some of their working memory, reducing their ability to hold onto the information.

The finding is consistent with previous research showing that people with hearing difficulties or who are listening in difficult circumstances (such as over a bad phone line or in a loud room) are poorer at remembering and processing the spoken information compared to individuals who are hearing more clearly.

On a practical level, this finding suggests that, if you're receiving important information (for example, medical information) from someone speaking with an unfamiliar accent, you should make special efforts to remember and process the information. For example, by asking them to speak more slowly, by taking notes and asking for clarification, etc. Those providing such information should take on board the idea that if their listeners are likely to be unfamiliar with their accent, they need to take greater care to speak slowly and clearly, with appropriate levels of repetition and elaboration. Gestures are also helpful for reducing the load on working memory.


Van Engen, K. et al. 2015. Downstream effects of accented speech on memory. Presentation 1aSC4 at the 169th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, held May 18-22, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


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Evidence for the benefits of meditation in fighting age-related cognitive decline

A review of meditation research reported in January last year concluded that there were insufficient good studies to allow us to say that meditation clearly improves attention and cognition. Studies from 2014 suggest three factors that might be part of the reason for inconsistent research findings:

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Interruptions impact the quality of creative work

In 2013 I reported how a 3-second interruption while doing a task doubled the rate of sequence errors, while a 4s one tripled it. A new study has attempted to measure just how much ongoing interruptions can negatively affect the quality of a complex creative task.

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Mnemonics for Seniors

  • Mnemonics can be effective strategies for older adults, but they require more training than younger adults
  • Mnemonic strategies with less memory load, like the keyword and the face-name association methods, are better strategies for older adults than strategies with a high memory load, such as the pegword and loci methods
  • The durability and effectiveness of mental images are enhanced if you spend some time attending to the quality of the image (e.g., how pleasant it is)
  • Because older adults have more trouble changing their habits, they are much less likely to continue to use a new method without explicit instructions to do so
  • Mnemonics that involve words rather than images may be more useful for most older adults
  • Mnemonics are not particularly useful for remembering information heard in the course of conversation, remembering an action performed, remembering to do something. Teaching yourself to repeat information is probably a more useful skill.

Aids to memory such as acronyms, rhymes, linking information by creating visual images or making up a story, are called mnemonics. Most popular memory courses teach mnemonic strategies. It is however only one type of memory strategy.

Mnemonics are however particularly appropriate for remembering names and dates. In a survey of over 100 elderly adults, learning and remembering people's names, and learning and remembering dates, were the two memory skills they most wanted to improve (Leirer Morrow Sheikh & Pariante 1990).

However, although mnemonics can be very effective, they do require a great deal of effort to master. In this page I report on research into the usefulness of various mnemonic strategies for older adults.

Pegword method

The pegword mnemonic is a strategy for learning lists. You memorize a list that converts numbers into visual images (one is a bun, two is a shoe, etc), and then use those images as pegs for the items you wish to remember. Thus, to remember a shopping list you imagine each item in turn with these images: an apple in a bun; a shoe full of beans; etc.

While the pegword strategy is effective, it does require a lot of training to be used successfully, and doesn't appear to be a good strategy for older adults.

Four studies have found no lasting improvement in memory when middle-aged or elderly subjects have been instructed in the pegword technique (Smith 1975a, Mason & Smith 1977, Hellebusch 1976, Wood & Pratt 1987).

Method of loci

The method of loci (places) is the classic mnemonic, first invented by the ancient Greeks, and is considerably easier to learn than the pegword technique. Using a place you know very very well - perhaps a familiar route, your house, or a particular room in it - you mentally visualize the items you want to remember in particular places.

This technique has had somewhat more success in improving memory in older adults, although not to the extent seen in younger adults taught the strategy. This may be due to older adults' slower rate of processing information. Older adults who are already experienced in using imagery are likely to find the technique more useful.

Robertson-Tchabo, Hausman, & Arenberg (1976) found elderly subjects successfully used the method, but only when explicitly instructed to do so.

Anschutz, Camp, Markley & Kramer (1985; 1987) found elderly subjects could be trained to use the method to remember shopping list items, but tended not to use it when asked to learn new lists several weeks later, and many reported not using the strategy when interviewed several years later.

Rose & Yesavage (1983); Kliegl, Smith & Baltes (1989) found the improved memory performance seen in elderly subjects was less than that found for similarly trained young adults.

The reduced benefit of the method to older adults may be due to their slower rate of processing information. Lindenberger, Kliegl & Baltes (1992) found that elderly adults who were experienced in using imagery (graphic designers) performed better than other elderly adults, although still not to the level of young adults.

Keyword method

One of the most effective mnemonic strategies is the keyword method. This is particularly effective for learning new words. Gruneberg & Pascoe (1996) had success in teaching a group of older women Spanish words using the keyword method of foreign language learning.

Face-name associations

Perhaps the most widely used mnemonic is the face-name association method. This strategy involves choosing something distinctive about the face, finding a word or phrase (the "keyword") that is similar to the name, and creating a visual image that links the distinctive feature with the keyword.

Yesavage & Rose (1984a) found older adults significantly improved their memory of names using this method, although the improvement was limited (they still only remembered 24% of names - but this was double what they remembered prior to training).

General remarks about mnemonic training

Long-lasting memory improvement is hampered by the difficulty older adults have in changing their habits - that is, they rarely use a new method without explicit instructions to do so.

The effectiveness of the method of loci and keyword method can apparently be increased by having the participants make affectiveness judgments (such as judging the degree of pleasantness) of each image they generate. This appears not only to increase the degree of improvement, but also the durability of the images (how long they are remembered for) (Yesavage & Rose 1984b (method of loci); Yesavage, Rose & Bower 1983 (face-name assoc)).

While relaxation training may improve learning in elderly adults who are anxious, it appears to hinder learning if the participants have low anxiety levels! (Yesavage, Rose & Spiegel 1982)

It does appear that age affects mnemonic training, in that it becomes less effective the older you are, especially with the more complex method of loci vs the simpler keyword methods (Yesavage, Sheikh, Friedman & Tanke 1990). This is not to say older adults cannot learn these techniques, merely that that older adults need extensive and intensive training to really benefit (Neely & Backman 1993a,b; Stigsdotter & Backman 1989).

Older adults can learn effectively by teaching themselves, but such instruction needs to be supplemented by periodic group discussions (Flynn & Storandt 1990).

Verbal mnemonics may be more useful for older adults who find imagery effortful. Hill, Storandt & Simeone (1990) found that a take-home manual on the use of organization in aiding memory resulted in substantial improvement. The story method has also been found to be of benefit (Hill, Allen & McWhorter, 1991), although its effectiveness depends on the person's ability to construct a narrative (Drevenstedt & Belleza 1993).

The most problematic memory tasks for older adults however are probably those which involve information experienced only once, incidentally – something heard in the course of conversation, remembering an action performed, remembering to do something. Training in the benefits of repetition is probably of more benefit than mnemonic training, for these instances.


  1. Anschutz, L., Camp, C.J., Markley R.P. & Kramer J.J. 1985. Maintenance and generalization of mnemonics for grocery shopping by older adults. Experimental Aging Research, 11, 157-60.
  2. — 1987: A three-year follow-up on the effects of mnemonics training in elderly adults. Experimental Aging Research, 13, 141-3.
  3. Drevenstedt, J. & Belleza, F.S. 1993. Memory for self-generated narration in the elderly. Psychology and Aging, 8, 187-96.
  4. Flynn, T.M. & Storandt, M. 1990. Supplemental group discussions in memory training for older adults. Psychology and Aging, 5, 178-81.
  5. Gruneberg,M.M. & Pascoe, K. 1996. The Effectiveness of the Keyword Method for Receptive and Productive Foreign Vocabulary Learning in the Elderly. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21, 102-9.
  6. Hellebusch, S.J. 1976. On improving learning and memory in the aged: The effects of mnemonic strategy, transfer, and generalization. Dissertation Abstracta International, 1459-B (University Microfilms No. 76-19, 496).
  7. Hill, R.D., Allen, C. & McWhorter, P. 1991. Stories as a mnemonic aid for older learners. Psychology and Aging, 6, 484-6.
  8. Hill, R.D., Storandt, M. & Simeone, D. 1990. The effects of memory skills training and incentives on free recall in older learners. The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 45, P227-232.
  9. Kliegl, R., Smith, J. & Baltes, P.B. 1989. Testing-the-limits and the study of adult age differences in cognitive plasticity of a mnemonic skill. Developmental Psychology, 25, 247-56.
  10. Leirer, V.O., Morrow, D.G., Sheikh, J.I. & Pariante, G. 1990: Memory skills elders want to improve. Experimental Aging Research, 17, 155-8.
  11. Lindenberger, U., Kliegl, R. & Baltes, P.B. 1992. Professional expertise does not eliminate age differences in imagery-based memory performance during adulthood. Psychology and Aging, 7, 585-93.
  12. Mason, S.E. & Smith, A.D. 1977. Imagery in the aged. Experimental Aging Research, 3, 17-32.
  13. Neely, A.S. & Backman, L. 1993a. Maintenance of gains following multifactorial and unifactorial memory training in late adulthood. Educational Gerontology, 19, 105-17.
  14. — b. Long-term maintenance of gains from memory training in older adults: Two 3 ½ year follow-up studies. The Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 48, P223-37.
  15. Robertson-Tchabo, E.A., Hausman, C.P. & Arenberg, D. 1976 . A classical mnemonic for older learners: A trip that works. Educational Gerontology, 1, 215-26.
  16. Rose, T.L. & Yesavage, J.A. 1983. Differential effects of a list-learning mnemonic in three age groups. Gerontology, 29, 293-8.
  17. Smith, A.D. 1975. Partial learning and recognition memory in the aged. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 6, 359-65.
  18. Stigsdotter, A. & Backman, L. 1989. Multifactorial memory training with older adults: How to foster maintenance of improved performance. Gerontology, 35, 260-7.
  19. Wood, I.E. & Pratt, J.D. 1987. Pegword mnemonic as an aid to memory in the elderly: A comparison of four age groups. Educational Gerontology, 13, 325-339.
  20. Yesavage, J.A. & Rose, T.L. 1984a. The effects of a face-name mnemonic in young, middle-aged, and elderly adults. Experimental Aging Research, 10, 55-57.
  21. Yesavage, J.A. & Rose, T.L. 1984b. Semantic elaboration and the method of loci: A new trip for older learners. Experimental Aging Research, 10, 155-59.
  22. Yesavage, J.A., Rose, T.L. & Bower, G.H. 1983. Interactive imagery and affective judgments improve face-name learning in the elderly. Journal of Gerontology, 38, 197-203.
  23. Yesavage, J.A., Rose, T.L. & Spiegel, D. 1982. Relaxation training and memory improvement in elderly normals: Correlation of anxiety ratings and recall improvement. Experimental Aging Research, 8, 195-8.
  24. Yesavage, J.A., Sheikh, J.I., Friedman, L. & Tanke, E. 1990. Learning mnemonics: Roles of aging and subtle cognitive impairment. Psychology and Aging, 5, 133-7.

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Language cues

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

What I was doing vs. what I did: How verb aspect influences memory and behavior

A new study reveals that the way a statement is phrased (and specifically, how the verbs are used), affects our memory of an event being described and may also influence our behavior. The study involved volunteers doing a word game and being asked to stop and describe what they had been doing, using either the imperfect (e.g., I was solving word puzzles) or perfect (e.g., I solved word puzzles) tense. The volunteers then completed a memory test (for the word game) or a word game which was similar to the first one they had worked on. Those who had described their behavior in the imperfect tense were able to recall more specific details of their experience compared to volunteers who had described their behavior in the perfect tense; they also performed better on the second word game and were more willing to complete the task. It seems likely that use of the perfect encouraged people to see the task as completed, and thus less likely to spend more time on it, either mentally or physically. The effects did however decay over time.

[676] Hart W, Albarracín D. What I was doing versus what I did: verb aspect influences memory and future actions. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2009 ;20(2):238 - 244. Available from:

How alliteration helps memory

Previous studies have shown that alliteration can act as a better tool for memory than both imagery and meaning. Now a series of experiments explains why and demonstrates the effect occurs whether you read aloud or silently, and whether the text is poetry or prose. The memory-enhancing property of alliteration appears to occur because the alliterative cues reactivated readers' memories for earlier words that were similar sounding. Alliteration, then, is most powerful when the same alliterative sounds are repeated throughout the text.

[1408] Lea BR, Rapp DN, Elfenbein A, Mitchel AD, Romine RS. Sweet silent thought: alliteration and resonance in poetry comprehension. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2008 ;19(7):709 - 716. Available from:

Connection between language and movement

A study of all three groups of birds with vocal learning abilities – songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds – has revealed that the brain structures for singing and learning to sing are embedded in areas controlling movement, and areas in charge of movement share many functional similarities with the brain areas for singing. This suggests that the brain pathways used for vocal learning evolved out of the brain pathways used for motor control. Human brain structures for speech also lie adjacent to, and even within, areas that control movement. The findings may explain why humans talk with our hands and voice, and could open up new approaches to understanding speech disorders in humans. They are also consistent with the hypothesis that spoken language was preceded by gestural language, or communication based on movements. Support comes from another very recent study finding that mice engineered to have a mutation to the gene FOXP2 (known to cause problems with controlling the formation of words in humans) had trouble running on a treadmill.
Relatedly, a study of young children found that 5-year-olds do better on motor tasks when they talk to themselves out loud (either spontaneously or when told to do so by an adult) than when they are silent. The study also showed that children with behavioral problems (such as ADHD) tend to talk to themselves more often than children without signs of behavior problems. The findings suggest that teachers should be more tolerant of this kind of private speech.

[436] Feenders G, Liedvogel M, Rivas M, Zapka M, Horita H, Hara E, Wada K, Mouritsen H, Jarvis ED. Molecular Mapping of Movement-Associated Areas in the Avian Brain: A Motor Theory for Vocal Learning Origin. PLoS ONE [Internet]. 2008 ;3(3):e1768 - e1768. Available from:

[1235] Winsler A, Manfra L, Diaz RM. "Should I let them talk?": Private speech and task performance among preschool children with and without behavior problems. Early Childhood Research Quarterly [Internet]. 2007 ;22(2):215 - 231. Available from:

Kids learn more when mother is listening

Research has already shown that children learn well when they explain things to their mother or a peer, but that could be because they’re getting feedback and help. Now a new study has asked 4- and 5-year-olds to explain their solution to a problem to their moms (with the mothers listening silently), to themselves or to simply repeat the answer out loud. Explaining to themselves or to their moms improved the children's ability to solve similar problems, and explaining the answer to their moms helped them solve more difficult problems — presumably because explaining to mom made a difference in the quality of the child's explanations.

Rittle-Johnson, B., Saylor, M. & Swygert, K.E. 2008. Learning from explaining: Does it matter if mom is listening? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, In press.

Poetry as a memory and concentration aid

A research group at Dundee and St Andrews universities claim poems exercise the mind more than a novel. They found poetry generated far more eye movement, and also that people read poems more slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with prose. Imaging also showed greater levels of cerebral activity when people listened to poems being read aloud. Interestingly, they also found this was true even when the poem and prose text had identical content; it appears people read poems in a different way than prose. The researchers suggest the findings have implications for the way English literature is taught in schools, and may be helpful for children with certain learning difficulties, or even age-related memory problems.

Carminati, M. N., Stabler, J., Roberts, A. M., & Fischer, M. H. (2006). Readers' responses to sub-genre and rhyme scheme in poetry. Poetics, 34(3),  204-218.

Support for labeling as an aid to memory

A study involving an amnesia-inducing drug has shed light on how we form new memories. Participants in the study participants viewed words, photographs of faces and landscapes, and abstract pictures one at a time on a computer screen. Twenty minutes later, they were shown the words and images again, one at a time. Half of the images they had seen earlier, and half were new. They were then asked whether they recognized each one. For one session they were given midazolam, a drug used to relieve anxiety during surgical procedures that also causes short-term anterograde amnesia, and for one session they were given a placebo.
It was found that the participants' memory while in the placebo condition was best for words, but the worst for abstract images. Midazolam impaired the recognition of words the most, impaired memory for the photos less, and impaired recognition of abstract pictures hardly at all. The finding reinforces the idea that the ability to recollect depends on the ability to link the stimulus to a context, and that unitization increases the chances of this linking occurring. While the words were very concrete and therefore easy to link to the experimental context, the photographs were of unknown people and unknown places and thus hard to distinctively label. The abstract images were also unfamiliar and not unitized into something that could be described with a single word.

[1216] Reder LM, Oates JM, Thornton ER, Quinlan JJ, Kaufer A, Sauer J. Drug-Induced Amnesia Hurts Recognition, but Only for Memories That Can Be Unitized. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 2006 ;17(7):562 - 567.

Language cues help visual learning in children

A study of 4-year-old children has found that language, in the form of specific kinds of sentences spoken aloud, helped them remember mirror image visual patterns. The children were shown cards bearing red and green vertical, horizontal and diagonal patterns that were mirror images of one another. When asked to choose the card that matched the one previously seen, the children tended to mistake the original card for its mirror image, showing how difficult it was for them to remember both color and location. However, if they were told, when viewing the original card, a mnemonic cue such as ‘The red part is on the left’, they performed “reliably better”.

The paper was presented by a graduate student at the 17th annual meeting of the American Psychological Society, held May 26-29 in Los Angeles.

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