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“William James: would have loved Memrise.”

Memrise enthusiast and French child-psychologist Juliette Danjon brought this marvellous quote by William James to our attention today:

“The art of remembering is the art of thinking; … when we wish to fix a new thing in either our own mind or a pupil’s, our conscious effort should not be so much to impress and retain it as to connect it with something already there (cf. Piaget’s principle of assimilation). The connecting is the thinking; and, if we attend clearly to the connection, the connected thing will certainly be likely to remain within recall.” (pp. 101–102).

This would serve extremely well as an explanation of and justification for our beloved ‘mems’, whose function is precisely to enchant and ease the process of connecting new knowledge to that which one already knows.

This is why mems come in many different forms: there are after all myriad different ways that new knowledge can be made to connect with the wild, infinite universe of connections that make up our minds.

It’s interesting to consider how the different kinds of mem we get on Memrise invent different kinds of connection.

  • Verbal mnemonics: these connect a new word to our existing knowledge of our native language. For instance, you’re trying to learn that “il compito” is Italian for “homework”. You imagine people in a compitition to do complete their homework. New knowledge (“il compito”) connects with existing knowledge in your native language (“competition”) as well as your existing concept of homework, and so finds an immediate home in the network of connections in your mind.

By David Roche

“A visual mnemonic by David Roche: ‘woman’ in Chinese”

  • Visual mnemonics: in Chinese, for instance, we can use our knowledge of the look of a woman, for instance, to help connect the new form of a Chinese character. That’s what these choice illustrations by our resident Irish artist David Roche help make happen:

  • Etymologies: these connect new knowledge semantically with our existing knowledge of languages ancient, modern and native. So I’m an ESL person learning the meaning of the word “negligée” and I discover that it’s from the French for “to neglect” because, relative to the elaborate garments typically warn by 18th century women, negligées are, well, a little neglectful. Recall James: “The connecting is the thinking”. Merely by having this thought, we’re laying down a vivid, accessible memory.

– Example sentences: sometimes, to see a word in use is to find a way to make sense of it. Let’s say I’m learning that “cielo” means “sky”. Perhaps I’ll select a mem such as this one by a member of Memrise’s community named Aurora: “Il cielo è pieno di nuvole- the sky is full of clouds“. Here, my existing knowledge of the Italian language (pieno means full, nuvole are clouds), provide a mental context into which to integrate the new word “cielo”.

This process of connection is a more or less explicit feature of anything getting learned at any time. Most of the time, the connections are implicit and we don’t realize our brains making them. But one of the fundamental features of memory is that every new memory has to find a place amid all the others. Nothing is learned “just like that”.

We cannot wait for the next couple of years on Memrise. The art and science of mem creation and selection is only just beginning. We are looking forward to being surprised and astonished by what our community comes up with here: there are surely a million new ways of connecting the old with the new that we haven’t yet begun to imagine.

And we should blog more about William James, and re-read him. Thanks Juliette for the wonderful spot!

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