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The Memory Garden

Learning is one of the great pleasures of life, yet the most common emotion in learning is fear.

A common object of that fear is the time and effort it will take to come to know something; relatedly, we sometimes think that to learn a little is not something to be proud of. Fear that it won’t be rewarding or pleasurable is common too, of course; perhaps most of all, though, we fear that we may be incapable. We worry, no matter how clever we take ourselves to be, that we’ll be for some reason unable to learn. And we’d often rather not test ourselves than run the risk of finding ourselves unintelligent.

There are a bunch of reasons for this fearfulness. Some of the problem is in schooling. Schools tend to be coercive, competitive places, where the motivation to learn is complicated by the motivation to excel or please or bully, or to avoid behaving like that. Schools also emphasize innate mental ability, typically calling it intelligence, and that concept has more or less eclipsed all others in our vocabulary for what happens in the mind. But since hardly anyone actually believes themselves intelligent or finds satisfaction in it if they do, and all fear the revelation of their stupidity, an emphasis on intelligence -in placing the focus on one’s essence, not one’s action- naturally injects learning with an aversiveness.

When we first seriously began discussing what metaphor to impose on the learning process at Memrise more than a year ago, our ambition was that it would enchant learning, and do something to take away or diffuse the fear people feel, for these reasons, when they consider beginning to learn Italian, or Chinese, or what have you.

We therefore sought a way of presenting learning that was, first of all, aesthetically pleasing: it had to present the results of learning as beautiful, enticing- as something to delight in, not fear.  Another way of saying that is that we wanted to find a way of framing learning that connects it with emotions that come before self-consciousness, before self-judgment, before any concept arises of your internal ability: we wanted to make learning the expression of desires to gather, to display, to order and to discover: we wanted to make it essentially luxurious.

We knew at the same time that our metaphor should amplify the truth of what happens when we learn, not disguise it: it had to do justice to the richness of all of the various ways a memory, or piece of learning, can prosper, suffer or evolve. It should help us understand the whole spectrum of learning: from the faint trace of recall of something encountered just once obscurely in the past, to the rich, indestructible memory that is so much part of us that we cannot imagine not having known it.

With all this in mind, we decided to frame learning as growing. As the nurturing and creation of a garden.

The way the metaphor works is this: we’re expressing the growth of your memories as the growth of flowers. Their life begins as a seed in a greenhouse- just planted in your brain- and ends as a strong and blooming flower in the garden- a memory deeply etched into your mind, whose connections run deep. Your memories grow (in you greenhouse) until harvest (around 4 hours later) and are then transferred to your garden. There, they are already pretty strong, but you still need to come back when bidden to give them a little watering here and there. Even the strongest plant will wilt if left uncared for.

Memories grow gradually, they need constant nurturing during the early phases of their growth, and as time goes on, as you inhabit them more and more effortlessly, they require less and less attention. Various actions strengthen memories, including viewing them again, actively recalling them, connecting them to other pieces of learning and, above all, experiencing them vividly in the first place. These can all be cast as acts of planting, watering, weeding, fertilizing and sunning.

One of the reasons we think that this metaphor will be very helpful to our wonderful community of learners is that it will help make it clear that memories are dynamic, alive and always shifting. That to grow one’s mind is to tend to it, to return to it often, to be proud of it and, in some sense, to fall in love with it.

Start growing your own memory garden now Remember, Memrise is totally Free!

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