Under the Hood

The science of vocabulary building

Can Forgetting Help You Learn?

As you play the Challenge, you may notice that as soon as certain words enter your brain, they flow right out of it, like liquid passing through a sieve. You’ve promised yourself to remember unctuous forever, but ten questions later, you see unctuous and you’ve forgotten what it means. When this happens, do you, like many of us, wonder if there’s something wrong with your brain?

That’s likely not the case. New brain research suggests that forgetting is not a sign of weakness, but rather an active process that may even help you learn. Think housecleaning, but instead of working with soap and hot water, the brain gets the job done with a protein called RAC. And when the brain is confronted with new information — such as when you start to answer new questions in the Challenge — the levels of Rac in the brain are increased. 

But why would the brain want to forget? Wouldn’t it be better to remember everything you’ve ever read, heard, experienced, or seen? Not, it turns out, when you’re learning new words. In Vocabulary Development, Steven A. Stahl's pithy volume encapsulating a career in Vocabulary education research, Stahl analyzes the way the brain’s active forgetting actually helps absorb the meaning of a word you’re exposed to multiple times in context. (Absorbing words you're exposed to multiple times in context is how you learned more of the words you know; and FWIW, it's the process you're mimicing when you play the Challenge.)

Here’s how it works: The first time you see a word in context, you get clues to its meaning. Some of these clues are dead-on. Others are vague at best or even downright misleading. And since your brain has no way to tell the good from the bad, it files them all away. But see the word in context again, and the brain will take note of the clues that show up a second time. Repeat this exposure many times, and the overlapping information will be further reinforced, forming itself into a cohesive sense of the word’s meaning.

What does the brain do with the clues that don’t show up time after time? This is where the brain’s active process of forgetting comes in handy. Those misleading and unwanted clues fade away, making themselves scarce — if only unwanted houseguests would be so kind.

So next time you play the Challenge, celebrate your brain’s ability to forget. And when you forget something you meant to remember, relax, re-read the explanation of the word, and trust that your brain will absorb it in due time. 

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 9th 2012, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Sergey O.
PLEASE, add a place to leave feedback - an email to contact you or a special blog post that is always on top.

Your website is fantastic. Thank you very much, great work! However, there are two things that it's missing. Both of these things restrict my ability to use your website a lot, so even if you fix just one of them, I will probably start using it two or three times more than I am right now.

1. The website is not mobile-friendly. When I am accessing it on an Android, I cannot search words, cannot "Learn" words, but I CAN hear the pronunciation of a word that's open. Then if I DISABLE Javascript on my android, then i CAN search words, but CANNOT listen to the pronunciation, so I have to switch Javascript back and forth... The "learn" button does not word - neither with nor without Javascript.

You really should make it mobile-friendly. It makes so much sense to learn words while you are waiting for a bus, and "the challenge" fits perfectly on a smartphone screen.

2. It would be great if I could temporarily skip the questions that require me to recognize the words by ear. This is so I can play the Challenge on a computer with sound disabled, or in a location where I don't want to disturb the people around me. Once again, if I am playing on a smartphone in a bus, I don't want to disturb the people around me by playing the pronunciation of some words. I would better answer these questions when I get to my home computer.

Otherwise, great job! Keep it up! (and add a place for feedback so people don't resort to replying to random blog posts...)

Monday April 9th 2012, 10:03 AM
Comment by: Vocabulary.com (NY)Visual Thesaurus Moderator

Thanks for your excellent suggestions, which we will keep in mind as we work to improve Vocabulary.com across all platforms and devices. If you would like to send feedback, you can also click " suggest a topic/contribute" on any article or blog post.
Friday April 13th 2012, 9:25 AM
Comment by: Idrees Y.
Hi, Vocabulary.com not only enriches vocabulary, but also paves the way for enhancement of every participants brilliance. 1.Indeed I appreciate MrSergey's suggestion, and I too personally felt the same so many times, as the participants do not have option to skip temporarily of those words which require active listening of their phonetics then and there. So they will be forced to make a blunt attempt so that they continue. 2.Once the participant signs in, I presume Vocabulary.com takes the onus and responsibility in strengthening each and everyone's WordPower irrespective of his present level, right from reminding them at regular interval and constantly sending mails to make them obsequious to learn. 3.If a specific word is answered wrong again and again, instant display of etymological explanation will helps to reinforce that specific word at ease. Hearty Congratulations for your Extrodinary Work and Continuous Quality Improvement. Idrees.
Monday May 14th 2012, 2:33 AM
Comment by: jyothi N.
I enjoy working out your vocabulary exercises. However, I sometimes have difficulty in doing your spell check component. Since we are all aspiring for basic recognition abilities and not memory skills , is it possible to provide multiple choices for the above mentioned exercise component. Jyothi Natarajan
Thursday July 26th 2012, 4:39 PM
Comment by: Chrissy (KS)
this article is extremely helpful.Thank-you sooo much.
Monday February 11th 2013, 3:23 AM
Comment by: T.Bladel (IA)
And loving it! Complaints, nope, I have none. Thanks so much!
Tuesday February 19th 2013, 9:43 AM
Comment by: Ketan V. (India)
This site is the life saver for many of us sitting like a duck in the office. Great methodology . Great method for the revision of the words and great concept of mastering the word.

Great work guys....you guys are really helping many people like me.

Please get it on the Mobile Platform , that is the last thing you need.
Thursday September 12th 2013, 1:44 AM
Comment by: prashant M. (India)
Awseome article. I am curious to know that what are the effects of learning new words on the brain i.e in what way it enhances our creativity or poses as a mental exercise for the brain ??? It would be great if u you can provide information on this topic or write a article.

Prashant Misra

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More on the way in which your brain absorbs word meanings.
Studies show that the more words you know, the better able you are to use context clues to deduce word meanings.
Using context to learn words on Vocabulary.com.