Taking one for the team: a memory test


A couple of months ago I read an article about a man who learnt a language in 22 hours. The man in question has “never been particularly good at languages” and the language was Lingala (the native tongue of northern Congo and not something that you’d be likely to already have a GCSE in), so I was a little dubious about his story. How did he do it? He used Memrise, a website which uses a combination of ‘science’, ‘fun’ and ‘community’ to help anyone learn anything.

The makers of Memrise (a British memory champion and a doctor of neuroscience) explain that at the centre of this theory is the ‘mem’ concept. A mem is something that helps you make a connection between a word and its meaning, in order to remember it. A mem could be an image or drawing, a mnemonic or other type of word-play, an animation or a video – anything, really. This (along with some other pretty techy stuff to do with timely testing) is the science bit.

Memrise uses elements of ‘gamification’ – the concept of ‘planting’, ‘harvesting’ and ‘watering’ your mems to create a ‘memory garden’, and scoring points for every piece of information you learn. This is the fun bit. You can compete with other users to move up a leaderboard, create your own mems and courses – from anything to Beginners’ Spanish to the Periodic Table of Elements – and become ‘mempals’ with other users. This is the community bit.

These mems sounded a lot like the mnemonics I used at school, which I found effective for learning short pieces of information – like cramming sets of facts, names or dates into my mind before an exam. But could you really use this system to learn the vocabulary of a whole language? I decided to test the site out by learning a few things of my own. Starting with less grand ambitions than learning a whole language, I embarked on a Memrise course called ‘Chinese Challenge’ – learning how to read a standard Chinese menu by committing 85 Chinese characters to my long-term memory (possibly quite a challenge for someone who has no previous knowledge of any Chinese at all).

After the initial exhilaration, I admit I got a bit bored with my Chinese Challenge course. I began wondering how useful memorising 85 characters from a Chinese menu really was for me. Yes, I could recognise the characters by sight and identify their meanings – but this didn’t translate to actually being able to order in Chinese in a Chinese restaurant. All I’d be able to do was point to the characters and say the words in English (plus, I don’t particularly like Chinese food anyway).

What I did find fun, though, was the fact that it worked – I really did learn 85 characters from a Chinese menu, and in a very short space of time. So I couldn’t wait to try it out on something that would be a bit more useful to me – like learning the names of all 50 US states and their capital cities, for example.

I’ll explain. I love a good pub quiz and have recently started to go to the one in my local pub on a Thursday night with a group of friends. As pub quizzes go, it’s a good one – a decent mix of rounds and questions, something for everyone and bit of strategy. My friends and I are a competitive bunch and we thought we had a pretty reasonable chance of doing well. So far, however, the closest we’ve come to the top spot is fourth place. Every week there’s a closely fought battle for first place between the same three teams. We are well and truly being outplayed. These teams clearly have a good range of knowledge – but, then again, so do we. So what makes them better than us? They have a very clear winning mindset and a ruthless winners’ strategy. On Wipeout rounds* they gamble big, and they don’t waste points on ‘knowable’ information. For example, every week there’s a question on US state capitals. There are 50 US states and 50 corresponding capital cities – and they’ve learnt this stuff so that not a single point is needlessly wasted.

We needed to get our own winners’ strategy if we were going to compete with the big guys. One of us needed to ‘take one for the team’ and learn all 50 US state capitals to ensure that we at least had that one point in the bag every week. “I’ll do it,” I said.

A few short Memrise sessions (15-20 minutes each time) and a day and a half in real-time later, I’d done it: the names of all 50 US states and their capital cities were safely embedded in my long-term memory (scientific fact).

Here are some of the most memorable mems from my ‘50 US States and their Capital Cities’ course:

Iowa, Des Moines – I owe her [Iowa] da money [Des Moines]
North Carolina, Raleigh – northern Carol riding a Raleigh bicycle
Ohio, Columbus – Christopher Columbus discovers America and says, “Oh, hi! Yo!”
Oregon, Salem – oregano and salami
Utah, Salt Lake City – Can U pass me the Salt? Ta(h)!

Perhaps next week that one point will make all the difference!

*In a Wipeout round, you get zero points if any answer on the sheet is incorrect. This gives teams the chance to ‘gamble’ and score big (bonus points are awarded if all answers are correct), or ‘wipeout’ and score nothing for that round.


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