(By Dr. Natalie McKnight)
Ask Americans to name a favorite song, and most will oblige with several. But ask them to sing or say the lyrics and most will fail miserably. But ask them—regardless of religious affiliation—to state lyrics from a Christmas carol and most will be able to do at least a halfway decent job. Or ask them to name a favorite short story or novel—most will come up with something; but ask them to give you the plot and most will botch it. But ask them to tell you the Christmas story, most will come up with the basic elements, even if their only real experience of it is Linus reciting the version from the book of Luke in Charlie Brown’s Christmas special (a perennial favorite, and one of the best recitations of the story I know of). Most will also be able to come up with the basic plot elements of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol too, even if their main experience of it is the Muppet version, or a streamlined version they did in grade school. Our memories of the songs and stories of Christmas are so strong because holidays by nature have spaced repetition built into them intrinsically—every year, at the same time, we resurrect the same rituals so that before long they really stick. Annual repetition may not be the best interval for effective spaced repetition memorization, but it’s still effective. Even songs and stories that we really like cannot compete in our memories with the ones that annual rituals replay.
Spaced repetition as a means of learning new material offers a means of reproducing the holiday formula with a more systematic spacing, timed to combat one’s ‘forgetting curve.’ But holiday rituals stick with us for reasons that go beyond repetition: the way the rituals appeal to all our senses helps to deepen the memories. The smell of Christmas trees, the feel of snow, the sound of carols and bells, the sight of Christmas lights twinkling at twilight, the cinnamony smell and taste of holiday cookies—these light up multiple areas of the brain thereby creating more complex neural connections. Repeated complex neural connections = strong memories = deep learning. When I’m teaching literature or philosophy classes, I often try to use a similar appeal to the senses to bring 3-dimensionality to words and abstract concepts. By highlighting correspondences between the words and the art, architecture, music—or even food—of the same place and time, I attempt to establish a structure for the new knowledge that will help students understand, reflect on, retain and apply the information.
Which brings me back to spaced repetition. Could spaced repetition be enhanced by sensory stimuli? I’m not thinking of aromatherapy index cards here (although that could be done, and why not?). But could burning Arabic incense while reviewing my Arabic deck heighten my remembrance of what I’m studying? Or might listening to salsa music while studying my Spanish vocabulary enhance my learning? If nothing else, these practices and others like them would at least make the studying slightly more enjoyable, and that in itself is probably worth it. I might just try out this theory and report back about it in 2017 . . .
And speaking of the new year, I know I’m not alone in wishing 2016 a speedy adieu. It’s been a terrible year nationally and globally (and for me personally as well). People are writing and posting songs about the awfulness of the year (my favorite is this one here, definitely worth checking out). Some might say 2016 is a year better left forgotten. But I would not agree, in spite of my overall disgust with the last 12 months. Our memories - the bad and the good - make us who we are. They connect us with our former selves, with those we love, even with strangers, when we discover similar memories in vastly different lives. Memories make us human. Bury them or try to lop them off, and you become less human, you develop pathologies. So, I'll remember 2016, but I hope - for all of us - that 2017 is a better and more happily memorable year.