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Random psycholinguistics musings

A couple of days ago, while I was in the shower, I started thinking about an old experiment that one of my former professors had talked about in one of my linguistics classes way back in the dim days of my misspent youth.

If I recall correctly, the experiment, which was done in the 1940s or 1950s and for which I sadly don't have a citation, was one of the endless series of attempts to 'prove' the superiority of whites that were so trendy back then. It involved taking random lists of numbers and asking folks of different races to memorize them.

The results seemed to fit with the racist orthodoxy of the time. Whites and Asians performed best, learning to memorize longer lists of numbers more successfully than, say, Africans.

But another researcher noticed something interesting: success at learning to memorize long lists of numbers varied not with the race of the person doing it so much as with the language of that person. In English, all of the numbers between one and ten are single syllables, except for "seven," which has two. In Japanese (I'm told), all of the numbers between one and ten have one-syllable names. In some other languages, some of the numbers between one and ten have multiple syllables.

People's performance on tests involving memorizing numbers varies not with the race of the person, but with the person's native language, and more specifically with the number of syllables for the various digits in that language. whose native languages were English or Japanese outperformed people whose native language contained many terms for digits that were two or three syllables long, regardless of their race.

When we memorize a list of numbers, it seems, we're not memorizing the shapes of the numbers or even a concept of what the numbers mean; we're memorizing words. We rehearse the list of numbers as though we were hearing it or speaking it. (This definitely seems to be what I do; if I'm trying to remember "813-555-7123," what I do is I say the numbers to myself: "eight one three five five five seven one two three.")

So that got me to thinking about whether or not what psychologists and cognitive scientists call the "short-term buffer," which is the place where we stick stuff we're trying to remember right now, has a limited capacity in terms of syllables as well as in terms of chunks. (The notion that we easily remember lists of seven plus or minus two numbers depends on how we chunk them; I remember "1966," the year I was born, as a single chunk, not as four digits.)

Anyway, while I was washing my hair, I started wondering if the same concept applies to things other than numbers, such as arbitrary lists of shapes. Imagine a list of shapes, laid out and named like so:

Some of these shapes have names that are one syllable long, some have two-syllable names, and some have three-syllable names. To front-load the experiment, the researcher could describe the shapes by name (to ensure that everyone was using the same names for the shapes), or could even give all the test subjects a copy of this chart.

Now, if there is a correlation between the number of elements that can be stored in short-term memory and recalled and the number of syllables that the words for those elements have, then I would expect that people would consistently do better when asked to memorize lists like dot-dot-square-grid-circle-dot-ellipse-square than lists like triangle-triangle-square-rhombus-hexagon-triangle-ellipse-square. Performance should vary not only with the length of the list but also with the number of syllables in the names of the shapes in the list.

So yeah, that's the kind of thing that runs through my head in the morning. Anyone want to fund me?


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 25th, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC)
1, 6, 7, and 8 are all two-syllable words in Japanese, actually.
Feb. 25th, 2011 11:09 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I know very little about Japanese. Everything I know about the language comes from a couple years doing aikido in college (where we only used numbers as prefixes attached to specific moves).
Feb. 25th, 2011 11:42 pm (UTC)
I've seen a few friends who do martial arts count in Japanese, and then tend to truncate the numbers in order to keep the count steady. Ichi (one) becomes "Ich," and so on. Great for rhythm; terrible for pronunciation. :)
Feb. 25th, 2011 11:58 pm (UTC)
Yep, that's exactly what we did.
Feb. 26th, 2011 07:18 pm (UTC)
Yes, as written; but spoken Japanese sometimes drops the final vowel, as, for example, in "roku" (but of course this may depend on context). Another weird thing is that, (American) martial arts tend to use "shichi" for 7, and drop the final vowel, while in the Japanese movies I've seen, "nana" is more common.
Feb. 25th, 2011 11:26 pm (UTC)
Lol, I do lots of great thinking in the shower.

The previous poster was correct about the syllables in Japanese numbers. Which I also know from martial arts. :)

I would think that things like the familiarity with the shapes and their names would also be factors here though. "Grid" is not usually a "shape" when we're learning our shapes, and I wouldn't use the term "ellipse", I think "oval". I would expect those items in a list to be harder for me to remember than the very first basic shapes we learn, like circle, square, and triangle, regardless of the number of syllables.

I'll consider funding you if you fund my studies of learning language. ;) I find that even more fascinating, always have... and now that I have a 13-month-old, even more so. (Her first word is officially "whee", she's my little adrenaline junkie...)
Feb. 25th, 2011 11:38 pm (UTC)
Another twist:
I'm numerically dyslexic (technical name: Dyscalculia with Irlens Visual processing syndrome). My brain sees numbers (7, 5, 3, 1, or one, two, seven, ten) as shapes and pictures only. Each number is a shape in my head that has, over time, been associated to examples. My visual centres are activated instead of my math processing centres of my brain. I can sequence numbers,predict sequences, and follow a map, only because I have a freakishly huge capacity for memorizing shapes and pictures. Testing shows that I perform as well as a 2 year old on many math related memorization exercises, but I score off the charts, above the 99th percentile, for memorizing number sequences.

So for me, memorizing numbers isn't so much linked to language (I'm bilingual French (which has single syllable words for all numbers from 1-10) and English) as it is to shapes.

Edited at 2011-02-25 11:39 pm (UTC)
Feb. 26th, 2011 02:50 am (UTC)
Re: Another twist:

someone suggested to me that i get tested for that, because i have a fantastic memory for long strings of numbers and am good at certain types of math, yet am horrible at basic math, directions, etc... can't find a test place in seattle that isn't expensive though
Feb. 26th, 2011 05:31 am (UTC)
Re: Another twist:
It's definately not an easy set of tests to go through... three full days and a MRI.
Feb. 28th, 2011 03:32 am (UTC)
Re: Another twist:
Just thought I'd point out (for those who don't know, yet care about trivia like that) that French actually has one-syllable words up 'til and including 16.

I also have a form of number dyslexia, but in my case it simply means that I have trouble remembering the order of numbers I see written. It was pretty bad working as a cashier, when I was supposed to give back, say, 13.70 bucks and I gave back 17.30 bucks instead (turns out people only tend to call you back on it when it's not in their favour).
If I slow down and focus, I can remember it better. Saying the numbers out loud or in my head also prevents me from remembering them wrong afterwards, but I need extra focus or I just pronounce it wrong in the first place, and then remember it wrong as a result.

I had a harder time in history than in math, as it is (in my opinion) easier to check in math if you got the right number or not. Dates seem a bit more arbitrary to me unless you can look at a bunch of them, sort the order of the events and deduce the correct date for each, but that's very time consuming.

I have a good memory, and if the numbers are spoken, I would remember them. If they are written though, there is a good chance I'll mix them up, I already do it for street addresses and phone numbers.
Feb. 28th, 2011 04:03 am (UTC)
Re: Another twist:
Ugh, sorry about that, 14 is 2 syllables as well. Not sure how I missed that >.> (then 20 and 30 and 100 and 1000 are all one syllable as well. French numbers seem more condensed than English ones, I had never thought of it before).
Mar. 3rd, 2011 10:23 am (UTC)
Re: Another twist:
To my (English-trained) ear, 4 (quatre -- approximately kat-tra) and 8 (huit -- approximately you-wit or we-ta; "h"s are pretty much not pronounced in French), both have two syllables (Random French Numbers pronunciation guide, including spoken examples which seem similar to what I remember learning). But I don't remember enough French to know for sure exactly how French counts syllables, especially in words where the final letter is sometimes pronounced and sometimes not (largely dependent on what makes the best spoken link to the following word; "huit" is one such word where the "t" may or may not be pronounced depending on whether a vowel or consonant starts the next word). So perhaps you're right.

Interesting post. I suspect as redhotlips alludes to that the key factor would turn out to be having a way of compactly remembering the numbers, and for social reasons for most western people that's probably going to be the words that we practiced oh-so-often when we were young. But other forms that easily come to mind are also likely to work.

Feb. 26th, 2011 02:49 am (UTC)

related article about an ordinary guy who won a memory championship may interest you:
Feb. 26th, 2011 09:40 am (UTC)
When the postal service was training us for ergonomics and efficiency we were told we could keep more digits in our short-term buffers if we did them in groups. So 3 sets of 4 numbers each took as much space as five numbers in a row. *shrugs* I aced all their tests anyway so I noticed no difference after training.

As far as remembering numbers goes I use this story to remember my phone number, otherwise I had no chance of remembering the numbers alone: Degrees in a circle, minus 1, 2 squared is 4 which is 2 times 2.
Feb. 26th, 2011 04:35 pm (UTC)
Depends on what your subjects call 'em. I might call those shapes dot, round, octothorpe, four, three, six, disc (or hula hoop), diamonds.

And for more fun, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllable#Syllable-less_languages .
Feb. 26th, 2011 08:02 pm (UTC)
You would have to weed out the synethesiacs (sp?), those whose brains see numbers as personalities or letters as colors.

Who knows what twisted brain would associate with an asterisk, for example.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )