Today Memrise.com is launching a new application called Cat Academy in an effort to attract more users. Ed Cooke, co-founder of Memrise, called it “a hypnotically relaxing learning experience.” He went on to declare it, “One of the great contributions in Western education,” tongue-in-cheek. But the point is clear: Memrise wants to help people learn, and if cats help them do it, so be it.
As people, we have a hard time remembering anything: where we left our keys; the birthdays of our closest friends; even the garments that continue to hang in the abandoned dry cleaners long after the proprietors have picked up stakes and moved on. These little foibles of the brain can be maddening to us, even perplexing, and by all accounts we take them for what our brains perceive them to be: things we cannot change.
But what if we could? What if there was a magic bullet to remembering anything? I repeat: anything.
Recently I spoke with Ed who, besides being co-founder of Memrise.com, is Grandmaster of Memory (think Grandmaster of Chess and the title will sink in a little deeper). Ed has been well noted over the last few years for being a “memory athlete,” along with a number of other individuals around the globe who compete in international memory competitions, and the basis of these talents rest on their abilities to memorize and conjure up pieces of information analyzed over short periods of time (one of Ed’s talents is the ability to recall the order of a shuffled deck of cards in 45 seconds flat, among many other memory feats).
Ed’s journey from Grandmaster of Memory has been well-documented, perhaps most notably as the memory coach for Joshua Foer, detailed in his book “Moonwalking with Einstein,” a Thesis recommended read for high schoolers outside of class, or any other individuals interested in the powers of memory. But Ed is concerned with more than just memorizing thousands of numbers or the order of a deck of cards – Ed is interested in redefining what we learn and how we learn it.
If you are new to Memrise, it is an online program designed to help people learn a variety of topics, from SAT words to literary devices to algorithms. Currently, Memrise is the leading online program for English language speakers learning Chinese, and it just surpassed the one million user mark.
The program’s international team of programmers, designers, and memory entrepreneurs are interested in how our brains learn, how we can pass that learning on to the masses, and how better technics and science can lead us to more advanced senses of recall. If you look at the program itself, it is founded in three guiding principles: mnemonic devices, spaced repetition, and choreographed testing.
The first principle of mnemonics (memory aids) encourages deeper associations of a word, idea, or topic with something much more impressionable to the brain. When you want to learn the word “Complacent” [adj. – smugly satisfied with the current state even when danger might lurk], you will have an easier time remembering the word if you picture a yellow cat sitting at a dinner table, the feathers of a digested bird still sitting on its plate, paws on belly in satisfaction; a Doberman standing behind him on hind legs, tongue hanging out and paws raised, ready to attack – Complacent. And the Memrise program enlists these types of impressionable images to help people associate words with meaning.
The second principle of spaced repetition reinforces what we all know we should do, but as humans have a hard time accomplishing: reviewing materials so we actually know them, and doing it in a manner that encourages long-term retention. The Memrise program is designed to email you when a word, idea, or topic needs to be reviewed; these reminders can be a few hours to several days after you have studied the material. This is all based on scientific evidence of how the brain learns and retains information, and as Ed pointed out from the beginning, “If you do want to learn things, it takes about 5 minutes a day over a period of a year to learn something indefinitely.” In this sense, the program is designed for you to actually learn information, and not just regurgitate facts the way you might for a test. Learning is a marathon, and Memrise has been designed to act like an inbox trainer.
The third principle of the program is the testing effect, which tests your ability to recall information in different ways. Unlike some online quiz programs, Memrise adapts with what someone has learned and interactively gets harder as the user embeds information deeper into his or her long-term memory, thereby accomplishing one of the most difficult tasks we face in education: making the information we learn stick.
In the course of our discussion, I asked Ed if he could tell me why I can never remember if I have locked my front door after I’ve gotten in the car and left my driveway. His answer: “Attention. If an act is well-rehearsed, you will not be conscious of the movements.” While this made perfect sense, I found it interesting that the “rehearsed” part of the action overrode the “intention” of the action, which is to keep people from walking through my front door and then walking straight back out with my television bundled in their arms. To illustrate how someone can adequately remember anything, even whether I have locked my front door or not, Ed said, “If every time you pulled the key out of the door, you imagined you were pulling a Koala bear out of a sink from drowning, you would remember.”
And after trying this, I can tell you, it works.
But as Ed also pointed out, “The tricky thing is we are happy to forget.” People tend to forget so much because we have so much information to take in through the course of an hour, day, or year. Not only does this cause us to forget where we set our keys down, but it also leads us to forget information we might have learned in grade school, college, and beyond. If you have ever wondered why you tend to remember information truly great teachers have taught you, essentially it is because you are paying closer attention and associating the information learned with an impressionable, positive experience. The same goes for other experiences, equally good or bad. It’s all about the impression.
“We want to amplify rather than replace,” was Ed’s answer when I asked him about the role of technology in the classroom. Beyond brain science, the Memrise team has studied, and continues to study, how great teachers apply their trade. “The freedom which great teachers have, the authentic love for a subject,” as he said, those are the traits that lead Ed to believe we will never be able to replace the classroom experience, simply enhance it.
Outside of the Memrise program itself, Ed had some interesting views on things we already know, and a few things we take for granted. For one, he recognizes children have a very receptive attitude towards learning between the ages of 8 and 13. Not only are children more open-minded, but they tend to be less critical of the material they learn when you put it in front of them.
On the topic of foreign languages, Ed agrees that learning multiple lexicons has a practical application for people working in international business and other similar professions, but he readily admits that one of the most beneficial aspects of learning anything is its ability to be a soothing, pleasurable, self-confidence-building experience. Other outcomes of learning a foreign language? Being able to speak with friends from other places; being able to travel more freely; feeling an amount of accomplishment and freedom from being able to do, say, and think more. It makes sense that the Memrise developers are reaching out across the world with their program, and doing it at breakneck speed.
As my final question for Ed, I asked him a hypothetical about studying during standardized testing. Knowing taste and smell are just as impressionable on our memories as pictures, I posed the following problem to Ed: a student is having trouble with a word or math equation he cannot remember. But he makes a conscious effort to eat a finger-sized candy bar every time he reviews the subject, night after night. And when he walks into the white-walled room on test day, sits down at the desk, goes through the standardized test as he normally would, and gets to the question that has given him so much trouble, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the finger-sized candy bar and eats it. Will he remember the word or math equation?
According to Ed, not only would the student most likely remember, but Ed himself did the same experiment at Oxford, sitting down for one of his tests with several different smells on hand that he had repeatedly used while studying (how he carried these smells, and what they were, I did not ask, which I regret).
Learning is not just studying materials, but studying materials in a way that enhance a person’s ability to recall and apply for a greater purpose.