Committing words to memory is a notoriously hit-and-miss business. Over the last forty years psychologists have found three methods which consistently improve memory for words:
- Imagery: recall is aided by creating an image of what you want to remember.
- Elaboration: thinking of associations helps anchor words in your mind.
- Generation: memory is improved when you have to put some work in to generate the target. E.g. guess the name of your favourite blog from this cryptic clue: _sy_log.
In research on trying to remember lists of words, these three methods have each produced memory improvements of 10% over simply reading words once.
That might not sound much, but it is an average over many studies and often for things that are hard to remember. Psychologists like testing people with non-words like ‘trackle’ or ‘nosting’ that could be words, but aren’t.
Now, in a new series of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, there’s solid evidence for a fourth which could join the other big three memory enhancers (MacLeod et al., 2010).
And, you’ll be happy to hear, it’s very, very simple. It only involves saying the word you want to remember out loud to yourself. It doesn’t even seem to matter if you don’t vocalise the word, it only has to be mouthed. That’s it.
According to MacLeod et al., saying a word out loud, or at least mouthing it, improves memory by increasing its distinctiveness, i.e. making it unusual compared to others.
Across 8 experiments in which participants were asked to read and remember lists of both words and nonwords, the researchers found memory improvements sometimes greater than 10%. They also ruled out some alternative explanations, finding that improvements were not:
- At the expense of unmouthed words. The effect was all benefit for the mouthed words and didn’t decrease performance on unmouthed words.
- A result of “lazy reading” of words read silently.
…but be selective
Of course just reading all the words out loud would destroy the effect because then there’s nothing for words said out loud to be distinctive in comparison with. It’s only going to work when some words are said out loud compared with others not.
So if you’re revising, or reading a report or a book and want to retain more of the important points, the key is to identify the right words and vocalise or sub-vocalise them.
This finding ties in with the general idea that we tend to remember people or things that stand out from the crowd. One gentle reminder though: if you are spotted mouthing random words in public, it’s you that will stand out from the crowd.
→ Continue reading: Memory and Recall: 10 Amazing Facts You Should Know
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Florian Seroussi
How Memory Works
→ This post is part of a series on how memory works:
- Memory and Recall: 10 Amazing Facts You Should Know
- Why People’s Names Are So Hard to Remember
- How Memories are Distorted and Invented: Misattribution
- Memory Improved 20% by Nature Walk
- Absent-Mindedness: A Blessing in Disguise?
- Mind Pops: Memories That Come From Nowhere
- How Quickly We Forget: The Transience of Memory
- Reconstructing the Past: How Recalling Memories Alters Them
- Can Doodling Improve Memory and Concentration?
- On the Tip-of-the-Tongue: Blocked Memories
- Six Memory Myths
- Memory Improved By Saying Words Aloud
- Infant Memory Works From Very Early
- Memories Are Made of This
- Memory Enhanced by a Simple Break After Reading
- The Persistence of Memory
- 7 Simple Ways to Improve Your Memory Without Any Training
- How the Consistency Bias Warps Our Personal and Political Memories
- The Temporal Doppler Effect: Why The Future Feels Closer Than The Past
- Implanting False Memories: Lost in the Mall & Paul Ingram
- Offline Learning: How The Mind Learns During Sleep
- How to Easily Improve Your Memory