Cognitive Functioning: Why Are Certain Words More Memorable?

Shirley Amy
July 15, 2020

Our brains use internet search engine strategies to remember words and memories of past experiences.

Scientists at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the NIH, have shown that our brains may recall some common words, like ‘pig,’ ‘tank,’ and ‘door,’ much more often than others, including ‘cat,’ ‘street,’ and ‘stair.’ By combining memory tests, brain wave recordings, and surveys of billions of words published in books, news articles and internet encyclopedia pages, the researchers not only showed how our brains may recall words but also memories of our past experiences. So let’s take a closer look at the findings, which were published in Nature Human Behaviour.

cognitive functioning

Our Memory Banks

Countless words of all sizes, are available in our memory banks to help us compile sentences at super quick speed. So to find out more, researchers at the NIH conducted a study involving two groups: healthy volunteers, and patients with epilepsy. The study lead, cognitive psychologist, Weizhen (Zane) Xie, Ph.D., who is a post-doctoral fellow at the NINDS, stated, “We found that some words are much more memorable than others. Our results support the idea that our memories are wired into neural networks and that our brains search for these memories, just the way search engines track down information on the internet. We hope that these results can be used as a roadmap to evaluate the health of a person’s memory and brain.”

Memory Tests

Along with his associates, Dr. Xie first noticed these memorable words when they were re-analzying the outcome of memory tests that were given to 30 epileptics who were taking part in another clinical study. The latter was headed by neurosurgeon, Kareem Zaghloul, M.D., who is a leading investigator at The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. He noted:

“Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures. The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories.” -Fascinating work indeed!

The Strategy

Using tests to study how our brain’s neural circuits store and replay memories, Dr. Zaghloul’s team instructed participants to look at pairs of nouns from a list comprising 300 common ones. “Apple” and “hand,” are good examples. Then, after several seconds, the subjects were shown just one of the words, such as “hand,” and asked to what its pair is, which in this case is “apple.”

Successful Recall on a Limited Number of Words

Once Dr. Xie and his team re-examined the effect of the tests, they determined that participants successfully recalled some words more often than others, regardless of the way the words were paired. In fact, of the 300 words used, the top five were on average about seven times more likely to be successfully recalled than the bottom five. It is quite certain that this successful recall of certain words, will resonate with many readers!

Shirley Amy

Shirley Amy is a Holistic Health Specialist and professional writer who's published 4 books. Her  interests include optimum wellness, mental health, fitness, and positive lifestyle change. She holds University and College qualifications in the fields of Health Science, Nutrition, Mental Health, Fitness, Holistic Therapy and Aromatherapy.

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