Why some words are more memorable than others

Our memory is a fascinating thing: what we remember and how, why we remember some things better than others… Researchers from the National Institutes of Health may have an answer to this last question. Recent studies have discovered that certain words are more memorable, and therefore easier to remember, than others.

In several recent studies they have discovered that our brains may recall some words like ‘pig’, ‘tank’, and ‘door’, more easily than others, including ‘cat’, ‘street’, and ‘stair’. How did they do that and what does it imply? Let us take a look.

Initial studies

The study was lead by Weizhen (Zane) Xie, Ph.D., a cognitive psychologist and post-doctoral fellow at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Initially, Dr. Xie and his colleagues analyzed the results of memory tests taken by 30 epilepsy patients in a clinical trial.

During the tests, patients looked at cards with pairs of words (such as ‘hand’ or ‘apple’) taken from a list of 300 common nouns. A few seconds later, they were shown one of the words from the pair (say, ‘apple’) again, and asked to remember its partner. 

Researchers noticed that patients recalled some words much more frequently than others, regardless of how the words were paired. In fact, of the 300 words, patients were seven times more likely to remember the top five, than the bottom five. When the patients made mistakes, they also mistakenly recalled the same more frequent words. 

At first, the researchers were rather surprised and skeptical. It had been commonly assumed that if a person recalls a word paired up with another one it means that they had made a connection between the words. It was also hard to explain why some words were more memorable than others. Further studies were needed. 

Follow up studies 

To try and replicate the results, the team published a version of the word pair test online. A total of 2,623 healthy volunteers took the test — the results were very similar. This has led researchers to assume that some words may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others.

According to Dr. Xie, one of the ways to understand the result of the studies was to apply network theories. In this case, people have memories of words, that look like internet connections, or airport terminal maps. With the more memorable words appearing as big, highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words’.

To further analyse this, the team built a computer program that scanned thousands of sentences from books, articles, and Wikipedia pages. They were able to determine that the more memorable words were not necessarily used more frequently. There was also no connection with memorability and the words being more concrete or abstract. 

Instead, the results suggested that the more memorable words, were more semantically similar, or more often linked to the meanings of other words used in the English language. Therefore representing ‘high trafficked hubs in the brain’s memory networks’.

The implications of memorable words

In general, the study is highly interesting as a look into how our brains work. How we ‘pass’ through words and other memories that are highly connected — some more often than others. In the same way that a computer searches the internet. 

It is also significant for studying mental health. Previously, it’s been hard to measure people’s performance on memory tests, as people recall past events differently, and with varying levels of detail. However, if scientists discover things (words) that are universally more memorable, they will be able to establish a point of reference.

This will allow them to develop memory tests for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. And this is what the team is currently working on.


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