Unlock your Memory Load

~ a 5 minute learning module ~

Read this sentence:

He sent the poison candy that he received in the mail to the police.

Now read this one:

He sent to the police the poison candy he received in the mail.

Which one did you find easier to read?

It's the Verb-iage

Glance at these two sentences again. What do you think makes the 2nd sentence easier to comprehend? Both sentences use nearly all the same words; the only difference is the order is shuffled around.

The reason, or at least one of them, lies in the placement of the primary verb in our sentence: to send. This verb requires both a thing to send and a destination to send to. Without these two components, the construction of sending doesn't make sense.

As you, the reader, move your eyes from word to word on the page (this very page), you are in fact holding complicated phrases in memory - loose participles, prepositions, verbs - until you don't need them anymore. This is when the role of the retained phrase, in relation to other parts of the sentence, become clear to you so you can absorb and assimilate that knowledge back into your full understanding of the sentence (how do you feel about the sentence you just read?).

This retention and release of words, concepts and phrases in the mind has a name: memory load (cognitive load). Memory load refers to a human's working memory resources that are being used at a given time.

A Closer Look

In the second sentence, the verb send, the associated thing to send, and the destination for the thing to be sent to are all clustered together. Each word follows one after the other.

He sent to the police the poison candy he received in the mail.

But this is not the case in the first one. We first learn that "he", the subject of the sentence, sent a thing (poison candy) only to then prolong the to-where the candy is being sent with a diversion into where he found it (in a mailbox)...

...and lastly we are greeted with our long awaited destination at the end of the sentence: "to the police".

He sent the poison candy that he received in the mail to the police.

Look at that gap between the the red lines! The gap represents the time that you, the reader, must hold in memory the sending of poison candy until you come 'round to the end of the sentence and come in contact with the destination, closing the cognitive loop and freeing up your memory for the words to come.

Further Learning

I was directly inspired by this fantastic 20 minute radio interview between Steven Pinker and Meghna Chakrabarti on NPR. The two discuss what makes good style in writing, and some of Pinker's do's and don'ts for how to write well in the 21st century.

Postscriptum a silly note for the mathematically curious - late June, 2020

I noticed something on my walk home today. My habits for blog writing neatly maps onto an infinite converging series. So I think. A few weeks ago I decided to write a gargantuan blog post for my website. It was gonna have diagrams, reactive elements, chapters, all the bells and whistles of a modern website. After a week of progress, I parked the project and said to myself, "I'll return to this later". A few days passed and I started work on new post. I planned something less extravagant but still effective: less of the fancy javascript but still packed with prime pedagogy, in high hopes that I'd communicate clearly to my readers. A week went by and once again parked the project and, said to myself, "I'll return to this later". Do you spot the trend? Shorter and shorter blog posts, abandonment roughly 50% of the way to respective completion. Imagine this pattern continues ad infinitum. Then we have $$ \sum_{i=0}^{\infty} \frac{1}{2} \times T(b_i) $$ where \( T() \) is a function that takes a blog \( b_i \) and returns the time it takes to fully finish it. I claim this converges! (a claim? or my personal proclamation to finish what I started) My proof is too large to fit into the margins of this webpage ;)