The font that can improve your memory

Early reports show that it works, as odd as the approach may seem to some fontologists.

  • A font has been developed with the aim of improving your memory.
  • 57% of respondents were able to remember text written in this font.
  • It's free to download.

Graphic design students, psychologists, and researchers at Australia's RMIT has created a font with the aim of improving memory retention. It's been dubbed Sans Forgetica.

The letters slant to the left. There's a gap left in each letter. When 400 students were tested on their ability to retain a text written in both Sans Forgetica and Arial, Sans Forgetica edged Arial out 57% to 50%.

How do these results sit within the already existing context of font, learning, and memory retention?

It's tricky to say: while you can fool yourself into paying attention by saying to yourself — in effect — 'I'm going to pay attention now' — which seems analogous to what Sans Forgetica is setting out to do — the research looking at the connections between fonts and memory currently seems to suggest a few things: (1) even though small fonts and large fonts can have a positive impact on your memory retention, it appears that adults and children look at large font words as an indication that they will remember something better than not — regardless of whether or not they actually remember it; (2) when test subjects were exposed to blurred words and clear words in 2012, there was "no difference in recall for clear and blurred words," although assessments of those words favored clearer typeface in what this particular test called a 'Judgement of Learning'; and — perhaps most directly relevant to our interests here — (3) in 2011, college students "who read about fictitious animal characteristics in a disfluent (Comic Sans MS or Bondoni MT) typeface remembered more of the characteristics after a 15-minute delay."

What does the study mean by the use of the word 'disfluent?' Disfluency is — per DSM-IV — "disturbance in the normal fluency and time patterning of speech." That typically means stuttering, but there's more than one way to use the term. You can 'create' disfluency by changing what a font looks like. You experience disfluency if you have difficulty processing certain kinds of information, or when you realize that you're not pursuing the path of least cognitive resistance. For our purposes here, it pays to think of 'disfluency' as something visual that makes the eye and brain say, 'Hold on just a second.'

What uses can a font like 'Sans Forgetica' have in the real world? Well, consider the original map of the London Underground and the work Harry Beck did to simplify, clarify, and delineate what was otherwise a tangled confusion of information: not only did he keep the lines equidistant from each other — regardless of the actual distance between one line and the next — but he made the text of each line legible as well. So imagine if Harry Beck took 'Sans Forgetica' and applied his sense of design to a CVS receipt or a 'Terms and Conditions' notice. Imagine what else might be possible.

It took the small team at RMIT six months to develop Sans Forgetica — it went through three different iterations — and you can download the font for yourself for free here.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.