When it happened I was standing next to my locker.
It was the second week of high school, and I wasn’t having a great time. My grandma had just died, I had just gotten braces, and my hairdresser messed up my haircut, so I had to shave my head.
First period was about to start, and I had just reached into my locker to pull out my Spanish book.
Then my friend Chad comes running down the hallway, yelling at the top of his lungs:
The Pakistanis are attacking! The Pakistanis are attacking!
Chad was fake news, but I still remember this because it’s the way I found out about 9/11.
And if you’re a millennial, I’ll bet that you remember where you were on that fateful morning, too.
These things happen in all of our lives. On an autumn day in 1963, my mother — six years old at the time — was sitting in front of the TV with her family. JFK had just been assassinated. And she still remembers sitting there in front of the TV, all those years ago.
The power of context
Terrible things have happened both before and during my lifetime.
But why don’t I remember the moment that I found out about brothers killing brothers in the Civil War? Or gas chambers in the Holocaust? Or the Rwandan genocide?
Probably because I found out about them from history books. It was just information on a page. It wasn’t relevant, and I couldn’t feel it.
I took US History in my junior year of high school. And I vaguely remember learning about carpetbaggers — people from the northern states who went to the South after the Civil War to profit from the Reconstruction.
And at the time, I probably thought, “Who gives a shit?”
Nah, I probably didn’t even think about it that much.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I’m reading Gone with the Wind, and I’m experiencing how the main character Scarlett O’Hara is despised by her fellow Southerners for mingling with the carpetbaggers. These vultures coming down to prey upon us poor, God-loving Southerners!
Now I’m starting to see what a carpetbagger is. I know about the people who are there when they show up, the events that happened before and after that, and the way they influenced (fictional) people that I know.
Reading a big book of fiction taught me more about the Civil War than any history book I was ever forced to read in school.
Context is the key to memory
Memory champions know this, although they probably won’t use the word “context” when they talk about it. Maybe they’ll talk about memory palaces instead.
I used to help people create memory palaces to memorize kanji, which are the characters in the Japanese language that come from Chinese.
You take pieces of a kanji, assign them keywords, then put those keywords into stories in a spatial setting with which you are familiar.
For example, 貧 means something like “poor” or “poverty.”
Traditional Japanese educators try to make students learn kanji by writing them hundreds of times, which is extremely ineffective.
But it’s a bit easier if you add context to these seemingly random characters instead.
For example, you can split 貧 (poor) into 分 (part), and 貝 (seashell).
Then you can make stories with those keywords.
A story that relies on wordplay is somewhat easier to remember than just the character itself:
Even part (分) of a seashell (貝) seems valuable when you’re poor (貧).
These mnemonics are even easier to remember if you give them a setting in the real world — a place you are familiar with.
I knew that I was poor (貧) when I opened my fridge and saw nothing but parts (分) of seashells (貝).
You know where your fridge is — its exact location in your house. You’ve probably opened it thousands of times. You’ve touched the handle, heard it humming, maybe placed some magnets on it.
So when you create a fake memory in this real place — parts (分) of seashells (貝) on every shelf of your fridge because you’re poor (貧) — abstract concepts like Japanese characters suddenly don’t seem so foreign or hard to remember.
The idea is that you could use thousands of such artificial memories to learn the 2,000+ kanji you’re supposed to know to be literate in the language. These often build upon one another.
A sword (刀) divided into eight (八) parts (分) lying in your bathtub.
A seashell (貝) that looks like a big eye (目) with legs (ハ) coming out of it walking across the top of your TV.
A fridge filled with parts (分) of seashells (貝) because you’re poor (貧).
It’s not that different from a carpetbagger moving in across the street from your good friend Scarlett O’Hara.
The reason that mnemonics which are placed in places you know are more effective is that the spatial world is the most context-rich environment a human can experience. We get to use all of our senses in the real world, so things we experience here are easier to remember.
By pretending to put abstract concepts into the real world, we can boost their context and make them more memorable.
Good in theory; difficult in practice
My History teacher probably wanted to have our class read Gone with the Wind before we started studying the Civil War. He probably wanted us to watch Hotel Rwanda before we learned about the Rwandan Genocide.
But schools have standards. And sadly quality of instruction is not as valued as instruction that ticks the boxes and gets the passing grades on the standardized tests. Teachers have some extremely difficult constraints in which they have to work.
The student is also an issue.
Yeah, putting kanji mnemonics into artificial memories relevant to your particular experience on this planet is more effective than just using wordplay or mnemonics that don’t relate to you personally. And it’s even better if the keywords and stories you use are obscene, silly, or abnormal.
For example, using the keyword “the Eye of Sauron” for 目 is more memorable than just “eye.”
Unfortunately, most students won’t go to the trouble of making their own keywords and mnemonics. And even if they do, it’s quite challenging to teach them how to make mnemonics quickly, which details they can look over, and how they can organize the volume of keywords they are assigning to things.
And good luck getting the high school student to read Gone with the Wind, even if the curriculum did allow for it.
The other issue is that the highest level of context for a certain concept will not always be available to you.
I remember when I learned the word 回す (mawasu), which means “to turn; to rotate; to spin.” I was in a dark Korean bar in Tokyo with a group of my Korean classmates and our Japanese teacher, an overweight little guy who became red as a tomato when he started drinking.
There is this drinking game where you spin the bottle cap of a bottle of soju, and whoever the point of the cap lands on has to drink. I asked my bright-red teacher how to say this action while spinning the cap. 回す (mawasu), he said.
I’ll never forgot that one.
But it’s too difficult to magically arrange your life so that you get exposed to all of the words and sentence patterns you need to learn in real-world, high-context settings like this. It’s inefficient.
All hope is not lost, however.
How to teach & learn with context
This one is pretty simple:
Find ways to add context to information you want to learn or teach.
Great presenters open with stories because they add context to the information they’re about to share.
A great car salesman doesn’t just rattle off the features of a sportscar. They get you to picture your new life once you have this car. The thrills, the prestige, the way it looks parked in front of your house. That’s how they teach you about the value of the car.
It gets progressively easier to learn a new word in a language when each of these items is in play:
- The word is in a sentence.
- The sentence is spoken by a human voice.
- The sentence is in a specific situation.
- The situation is relevant to your life.
- You experienced the exact situation in the real world.
We can’t check all of those boxes for every word we teach at NativShark, but we try to check as many as we can.
What do we walk away with?
Another way to think about learning and context is to consider this quote attributed to Maya Angelou:
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
This is why you can love a book or a TV show even if you don’t remember exactly what happened in the story.
And in the future you probably won’t remember the headers of this post.
And you might not remember which examples I used when talking about studying kanji.
But maybe you’ll remember learning that the Civil War is more interesting when you're friends with Scarlett O'Hara. Maybe you'll remember that I learned a Japanese word from a teacher while we played a drinking game with a bottle cap.
Context makes things more memorable. Stop for a moment to consider where you are as you read this. Are you sitting or standing? At home or somewhere else? Do you come here often? What is your posture? What are the sights, sounds, and smells around you right now?
Try remembering the value of context by thinking about your context right now.
And try inserting some context the next time you want someone to remember something you’re telling them about.