Why Learning a New Word Every Day Boosts Your Memory

Beyond Rote Memorization: Secrets of learning a new word through seeing it and hearing it

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

In school, did you view vocabulary and spelling tests as useless exercises in rote memorization? As it learns out, learning new words can be useful when it comes to boosting your memory and, ultimately, your brain power. Dr. Restak explains.

Wooden letter squares scattered on background
If you say a word or a letter related to an object that you are looking for before scanning a group of items to find it, you will have quick success in finding the object. Photo by librakv / Shutterstock

How Words Boost Memory

Words are memory boosters and prime the brain’s visual areas. The resulting mental images make us more sensitive to what we’re trying to memorize

This is called top-down processing, where the upper part of the brain is controlling the limitations on the lower part—the sensory input. In this type of processing, the information moves from general to specific as we first form an abstract impression of an item and then gather more details through our senses. 

In one experiment involving Cheerios and Sprite, it was shown that by repeating the product’s name to themselves, people were able to quickly find those items hidden in pictures of a crowded supermarket shelf. Knowing the name for something helps you to locate it more easily. 

For example, when you know the name for a certain plant and go into a garden, you can quickly find it. Verbally defining an item helps you to better perceive it using your senses. In one study, if people heard a letter said aloud, it helped them find it among a string of other letters. 

Building Your Vocabulary

Since learning new words is a key component to memory enhancement, try to learn as many new words as possible. If you learn one a day, that’s 365 words a year; two words is double that and so forth. Learn a new word every day and keep the word in a journal. 

“Today’s word for me is sedulous: involving great care, effort, and persistence,” Dr. Restak said. “And here’s a sentence: ‘She was sedulous and would work on a poem for years.’ It was written about an American poet.”

When attempting to memorize words, learn the meaning of the word, the language of origin, and the root. Break the word into its component parts, and use the word in a sentence. 

Pronounce the word and review its meaning. Spell the word to yourself and match it with its sound. Mentally picturing the word brings more brain structures into play. 

Senses and Memory

You want to incorporate as many senses as you can. Listen to yourself saying the word. This increases the linkages of the word and its networks. The networks of the brain can actually mirror the networks that you’re trying to find in terms of knowledge.

“I asked the winner of the adult spelling bee for his secrets,” Dr. Restak said. “He told me he made tapes of words for listening while commuting or jogging. He spent many hours of solitary word study.”

Dr. Restak used a similar multisensory method to prepare for an examination years ago. He was reading textbooks, writing, and dictating into a tape recorder, which he would play when he was driving around or otherwise unoccupied. 

“I was then able to have two channels of input, both having read it and having heard it,” Dr. Restak said. “Sometimes I would sit home and read it while also listening to it at the same time; so the two channels were working simultaneously.”

Engaging multiple senses naturally focuses your attention. Since paying attention is the most fundamental rule for improving memory, you can do some warm-up exercises to sharpen attention before attempting to memorize information. 

One exercise involves rapidly scanning pictures and describing what you saw. Then look back and check for accuracy. Additionally, you can draw something and then verbally describe what you have drawn.

Both of these exercises engage your senses and motor skills. They also improve your ability to put images into words, which in turn strengthens your memory.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.