Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We remember "random" sequences of alphabets much better than random sequences of numerical digits. Why?

Ask me to remember the following three words, and I guess I should be able to (quickly):
  • Nipitto
  • Quasquam
  • Zyrectica
Ask me to remember the following three numbers, and in all probability I won't be able to:
  • 5686990
  • 21342137
  • 984631237
Why the difference? There are 26 alphabets in the English language, compared to only 10 numerical digits. And yet we're able to remember thousands of words - most of which are basically random sequences of alphabets (it's we who've given meaning to these random sequences) - but we have trouble remembering more than a few phone numbers. Why?

On a completely fundamental level, alphabets and digits are nothing but visual representations of certain values and sounds, respectively. And words are formed by combinations of letters, while numbers are formed by combinations of digits. Why then is an average human able to remember thousands of words in his memory - sometimes even from multiple languages - but he can't remember too many numbers?

I suspect that sounds are a reason. Since all words in the English language have a unique pronunciation (in the form of a sound), it's possible that we're better at remembering sounds. Numbers - such as 32748746 - don't have any single sounds associated with them, and this might be a reason why numbers are much tougher to remember. The concept of sounds also seems to be applicable to the examples I've given at the start of this blog post - all of the three words can be converted into sounds, which're much easier to remember than pure sequences of alphabets. It's possible that we remember sounds, and later use a sound-to-text engine present in our brain to convert the sounds to sequences of alphabets. It's also possible that each sound can be stored as a single data-chunk, thus requiring less memory compared to a sequence of numbers.

Case in point - remembering the following words is as tough as remembering numbers, because these words can't easily be converted into easy sounds (absence of vowels):
  • Zvtrxttr
  • Nytrpqstj
  • Bcddfktr
These aren't words anymore - they've become as tough to remember as numbers!

Related content:
 Human brain could be storing & retrieving information as 'related blocks'

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