Want to foster learning? Shake that body!

According to the popular stereotype, Italians are unable to speak without gesticulating. If this is true, this cultural particularity could be a real advantage in improving their ability to memorize. Movement, along with sight, smell, and touch appear to facilitate learning. Are we on a new track to better learning?

At school, nothing is more boring than learning a long list of words and their translations by heart, simply by repeating them again and again... and again. Not only is this method terribly dull, but it most likely won't provide the desired results. To improve things, we've since added a few pictures next to the words as illustrations, because involving the visual system is apparently effective for learning. It's certainly an improvement, but it's no miracle solution. Even the most dedicated learners still have a hard time learning and expanding their vocabulary.

Meanwhile, scientists are making progress in the field of multi-sensory learning. The idea is to associate words with different sensory stimuli, or induce learning through the senses. A team at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognition and Brain Sciences in Leipzig has put this theory into practice. Young people were asked to learn a list of words in a language designed specifically for the purposes of the study, Vimmish. Researchers thus ensured that all the words were completely new to participants. Participants were divided into three groups, and each group experienced the word in a different manner. The first group heard and read the word in Vimmish along with its translation. The second group heard the word and were then shown an illustration or a gesture that symbolized the word. Finally, the third group heard the word, and were then asked to draw the word in the air or otherwise express it using a symbolic gesture. The quality of memorization was then measured by asking participants to recall the words at different time intervals following the experiment.

According to Katja Mayer, one of the study's co-authors, two major results emerged from the research: “The subjects' recollection was best in relation to terms they themselves had expressed using gestures. When they heard the term and its translation and also observed a corresponding image, they were also better able to remember the translation. By contrast, however, tracing a term or observing a gesture was no better than just hearing the term.”

So how does the brain respond? Using an MRI, the experiment also showed that when we recall previously learned words, the areas of the brain responsible for motor activity are also activated (even though the participants are immobilized) if the words are learned using gestures. In the same way, the visual system is activated for words learned with the help of a picture.

The use of sensory systems therefore appears to facilitate word learning by strengthening their imprint in the brain. Are you trying to learn a foreign language, or are you undertaking some other form of learning? Be sure to involve your body, senses, muscles, and emotions.
Source: Mayer K.M., Yildiz I.B., Macedonia M., von Kriegstein K. Visual and motor cortices differentially support the translation of foreign language words. Curr Biol. 2015 Feb 16;25(4):530-5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.11.068

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