Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dirty mind = better memory?

That's what we're getting from the New York Times:
The basis of memory techniques is that the brain remembers visual imagery better than numbers, and erotic, exotic and exciting imagery best. … “When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind,” [Joshua Foer, author of “Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,”] writes. “Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex — and especially, it seems, jokes about sex.”
So if you were ever wondering why you never had any trouble learning dirty words in a foreign language, this is probably it.

But the tactic has you using it for any words at all:
[Memory grand master Ed Cooke] coaches [Foer] in a system of memorizing a deck of cards in under two minutes that uses both familiar old memories and thrilling new pictures. Foer said his images devolved into “a handful of titillating acts that are still illegal in a few Southern states, and a handful of others that probably ought to be.”
However effective it may be, I'll venture that we're not going to see this tactic widely deployed any time soon.


  1. That was actually my complaint about the "Reviewing the Kanji" study site (to use with the "Remembering the Kanji" book). You record the stories that you used to help remember the primitives (pieces) of each kanji and can even share them with others for inspiration. It is an extremely helpful site, but flooded with perverted stories.

    The really annoying part is that they generally aren't that creative either, just pointless. Every primitive that had a somewhat phallic name (wood, rod, flesh) ended up with stories like "he put his __ in her __". How is anyone really going to remember if the story was for wood or rod with a story like that?

    After about 1000 kanji I got pretty sick of all of those stories and finally found a way to block them with a firefox add-on.

  2. Here is a link to the add-on (you need Greasemonkey as well) ~
    It gives you a few options on which stories to hide.

  3. Nice that you picked up on this story in relation to language learning -- that's the connection it made with me too, especially for learning Chinese characters. Plus it was superbly written.

    Both you, Vincent, and commenter Tiffany seem to come across as anti dirty story. But maybe I'm misinterpreting?

    My personal experience (don't worry, I'll skip the details) is that the dirty stories are extremely effective. My knowledge of Chinese characters has a corresponding "tawdry tableau" to rival NYT author Joshua Foer when he has Michael Jackson defecating on a salmon burger and capturing his flatulence in a balloon. The trick is, the dirty stories probably have to be your dirty stories -- using other people's just reduces it all to phallic objects and receptacles.

  4. Interesting post. Ive figured something like this was thought about outside my own brain, so nice to see an explanation:)

  5. No wonder sailors learn language so quickly!

  6. Dirty mind = better memory, I agree! Using all kinds of weird, dirty and crazy mnemonics/stories is much more effective than relying on rote memorization, specially to learn kanji and vocabulary!

    BTW, we might not see people deploying the tactic, but that doesn't mean they are NOT applying it in their own filthy minds!! xD

  7. I agree!
    I like to use humor to learn languages, or swear words. Creating mnemonics is easier this way.

  8. I'm for whatever works. This technique seems to work, so I'm for it.  I just doubt you'll see many people adopting it en masse.

  9. Out of curiosity what do you think of remembering the kanji? So far I've just been learning Kanji as I go with anki but I was interested to see if it was worth the time to go through RTK or some similar system to learn the kanji up front? ( I found this post searching for remembering the kanji on your site.)


  10. Loved it! I used the book with the "Reviewing the Kanji" site (for story inspiration & storage) and got through the 2000+ kanji in 2.5 months.

  11. The thing I've never liked about RTK is the way that meaning and readings are separated. I want to know how to say and use things now... not weeks (and possibly months) down the line after I've learned a bunch of pictograph meanings. I'd also miss the etymologies that Henshall's book has. On the other hand, I do like the way RTK organized the kanji readings into groups by pattern; you'll eventually figure those out, but it's much easier when they're presented to you up front.