Friday, September 11, 2020


As authors, we all know by now how to work the “search engine optimization” game. That is, we’ve learned how to ensure that when someone searches for us or our books on Google (or some other Internet search engine), they find our websites and titles first, and not some random schmoe with a similar sounding name or domain. As I explained in a recent post, keywords work the same way to direct searches for our books on Amazon. Assign the right keywords to your titles and readers find your books a lot faster.

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) have discovered in a new study that our minds search for words in a way that is very similar to SEO, giving preference to words with similar meanings to create a kind of linguistic network. Some words are easier to remember because they are semantically linked, leading to areas of high traffic in the network, while others are harder to remember because they have fewer meaningful links, leaving them on the “outskirts.” It’s as if some words show up first in the Google search and others show up on page five—or 100.

The right words are easy to remember--apparently.

"We found that some words are much more memorable than others. Our results support the idea that our memories are wired into neural networks and that our brains search for these memories, just the way search engines track down information on the internet," said Weizhen (Zane) Xie, Ph.D., a cognitive psychologist and post-doctoral fellow at NINDS, who led the study published in Nature Human Behaviour. "We hope that these results can be used as a roadmap to evaluate the health of a person's memory and brain."

The study focused on common words like “pig,” “tank,” and “door,” which turned out to be much more memorable than other common words like “cat,” “street” and “stair.” The researchers used brain wave recordings, memory tests and surveys of billions of words from a variety of sources for their work, the idea for which arose out of small study of epilepsy patients with intractable seizures. In that study, a team of scientists led by Dr. Kareem Zaghloul at NINDS used a simple test for recalling pairs of words to observe how neural circuits in the brain record and replay memories. They saw that some of the 300 pairs of words they used were easier for their subjects to recall than others.

At first, the team dismissed the results. Yet when researchers tried again with the same words in different pairs, they discovered the same words gave their subjects trouble no matter how they were paired. The scientists remained skeptical, hypothesizing that differences in the subjects’ backgrounds might yield a different “relationship” to the words, giving them more or less “weight.”

But a larger study of 2623 healthy volunteers on an online crowdsourcing site yielded similar results, proving that the small, epilepsy study was no fluke.  

Then in a moment of serendipity at a Christmas party, Xie met Wilma Bainbridge, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Chicago, who, at the time was working as a post-doctoral fellow at the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Bainbridge had written a paper on the theory that some faces are inherently more memorable than others.  

"Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives," said Bainbridge. "And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

Even though Bainbridge’s theory—the Search for Associative Memory model—had only been applied to images, Xie thought it could be applied to the work he and Zaghloul had been doing with words. “We thought one way to understand the results of the word pair tests was to apply network theories for how the brain remembers past experiences," said Xie. “In this case, memories of the words we used look like internet or airport terminal maps, with the more memorable words appearing as big, highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words. The key to fully understanding this was to figure out what connects the words."

The researchers had to write a new computer model to do this, and, in doing so, found some of their simplest explanations for why certain words were more memorable didn’t account for their results. It wasn’t the number of times the words appeared in sentences that made them memorable, for example, or the “concreteness” of their definitions. It was, in fact, the semantic links—that is, the meaningful connections—attributed to the words that made them more memorable. (Though—to pause for an editorial comment here—how “pig” could have more semantic impact than “cat” is a mystery to me.) The more semantic links, the heavier the network “traffic” through the word in the brain.

To the scientists this is vital to the understanding of how the brain works and can lead to better medical intervention in the future. For me as a writer, though, not only am I picking up all kinds of plot bunnies for my telepathic Thrane aliens, but I’m also working overtime to figure out which words might have the best neural connections for my next best-selling title. Without somehow resorting to the use of “pig.”

Cheers, Donna

*Information for this post provided from: "Why some words may be more memorable than others," NIH/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, as reported in Science, June 29, 2020.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog, Donna. Pretty fascinating study, both for the implications for keywords and for characters.

    On the "pig" front, my first thought was all the uses--with both negative and positive connotations--for "pig" in our culture. but like you, I'm not sure why that doesn't also work for "cat" or "dog." It's a mystery.


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