On the train coming home from work yesterday, I read an article in the Chicago Tribune entitled “Wordgasm game for adults builds vocabulary skills.” It was about a woman who created a dvd series called Wordgasm, using racy poems, saucy songs and sex to help adults build verbal prowess.
When asked why the conjunction of sex with vocabulary learning, she replied:
When I was practicing law, I taught standardized test prep to make extra money. I started doing a ton of tutoring, and with vocabulary it’s really important to get people to pay attention—it’s a big part of memory. So by adding the sex and making it racy, it makes the program way more effective. I could test people on the words, and after listening just once, they’ll know them.
This article immediately called two things to mind. First was the episode of the Simpsons where Marge leaves Homer for a college professor, and the deeply depressed Homer forms a grunge band he calls Sadgasm. Kurt Cobain’s cousin calls him, puts the phone up so he can hear the band, and the grunge sound is born.
The second thing I thought of was something from my BYU past. When I took psychology we were given extra credit if we would volunteer to be subjects in various research projects that were going on. So I volunteered.
It turned out to be a project for testing memory retention. They would do things such as give you long lists of words, then distract your brain with something else for a while, and then test your recall of the list of words, that sort of thing. I think there were about a half-dozen drills they ran you through.
As I sat in my little booth taking the test, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to remember all of these things in the right order unless I came up with some sort of mnemonic device to assist my poor little brain. So I decided to use profane words as mnemonics to help me. (Think of George Carlin’s infamous seven words you can’t say on television routine.) I reasoned that I would be more likely to remember those kinds of words than everyday, ordinary ones.
I did well on the drills and was pleased with my performance.
Then a couple of grad students wanted to interview me to inquire in detail as to how I managed to memorize the material. Oops! I just thought I had to take the tests, I didn’t realize I was going to have to explain how I managed it afterwards. So I had a crisis of scientific ethics. Part of me wanted to lie about the reality of it. But I had been a science geek growing up, and most of me realized I didn’t want to compromise the study by lying about my methodology.
So I took a deep breath and spilled my profanity-laced mnemonics. This was very embarrassing to do in the BYU context.
One of the grad students looked at the other. There was this pause, as they seemed to struggle to absorb the information I had given them. Then slowly smiles crept onto their lips. And the smiles soon turned into laughter. And when they started laughing, I joined right in.
They were good sports about it. But they threw out my test results. They weren’t about to include my methodology in their BYU-sponsored research!