In the middle of a pretty interesting article on how psychology was used to analyze the wildly varying recollections of the survivors of a WWII naval battle to pinpoint the location of the battle's shipwrecks, the author makes an interesting point about memory:
When a memory is made, the content you're trying to remember is embedded in a schema, or theory of what is going on. Over time, you remember less of the original content and more of the general theory.One thing about my own language learning that I've noticed is that I seem to retain grammar rules much longer than vocabulary. I've always chalked that up to exposure; if you say there are hundreds or even thousands of grammar rules, there are easily many more words than that, so for a given amount of exposure you'll be getting more exposure to your average grammar rule than your average word.
But what if the actual difference is that grammar rules fit better into the "schema" I'm embedding the memories into?
This seems particularly relevant because of the method I've used to pick up grammar, which includes the creation of an actual grammar outline. In effect, each time I've done this, I've created a schema1 in which my memory can embed the content, and I'd imagine that that's part of what has made the exercise effective. Indeed, even now, when I think of grammar rules in, say, Portuguese, I can envision how those rules are organized in my outline, even though I probably haven't looked at that outline itself in a very long time, although I of course cannot remember all the exact details of the outline. What I can recall would seem to be me recalling the "general theory" while not necessarily being able to recall the "original content".
This concept may also relate to those who use vivid yet seemingly arbitrary associations to recall things, like Daniel Tammet. Perhaps the real skill of Daniel and others like him is the ability to create memorable schema, leading to the data in such schema being easily recallable.
1. As an aside, the word for "outline" in Portuguese is esquema, a cognate of "schema".