Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Say it loud: I’m creating a distinctive memory.

How can talking aloud help you learn and remember better?

Studying in the libraryI'm around a lot of studying. When I walk through the lobby of the Psychology building at Texas, I often see a few students on benches reading over their notes. A trip to the library requires navigating a sea of students at tables and carrels deep in study. Then, when I go home, I have three teens who are usually engaged in some kind of studying.

One thing you can say about studying. It sure is quiet.

Now, there are good practical reasons to want to be quiet while studying. If you're in a public place, it would be disruptive to the people around you to start talking. Plus, if you are talking to yourself, that would look more than a little odd. Even at home, you may begin to think you have lost your marbles if you start muttering to yourself while studying.

A paper by Colin MacLeod, Nigel Gopie, Kathleen Hourihan, Karen Neary, and Jason Ozubko in the May, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, suggests that every once in a while, it might not be a bad idea if you talked a bit while studying.

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In this paper, these researchers document what they call the production effect. They looked at people's memory for items like a list of words. They found that if people studied the list by reading half of the words silently and the other half by saying the words out loud, that he words spoken aloud were remembered much better than those that were read silently.

Face TalkingNow, it isn't that just reading things aloud helps, because people who read all of the items on the list aloud were no better at remembering the items than the people who read them all silently. And both of these groups remembered the words more poorly than the words that were read aloud by the people who did half the list silently and the other half aloud.

So, what is going on here?

One of the things that is known to help memory is distinctiveness. We tend to remember oddballs pretty well. An experimental example of this idea is the Von Restorff effect. If you study a list of words where all but one are birds and the remaining item is a sport, you are much more likely to remember the oddball than to remember any particular one of the birds. More commonly, when you meet up years later with friends from grade school, everyone remembers the names of the kids who were different from the crowd in some way. (If you discover that everyone from grade school remembers you, then you were probably the one who was different.)

The production effect works because it makes part of the list of items more distinctive. The words you speak aloud are now translated into speech and you have knowledge of producing the items as well as a memory of hearing them. All of this information makes your memory for the spoken items more distinct from the rest of the items that were read silently.

This result suggests that if you are studying material, you might want to identify those bits of information that are most important to remember and to speak those bits aloud while studying. Even a whisper will help to make those items more memorable.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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