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Can Negative Mental Associations Affect you when Learning Spanish?

I hated mayonnaise while I was growing up. If someone made me a sandwich and it had mayonnaise in it, I just would not eat it.

If I ordered a sandwich at a restaurant and I forgot to request a mayonnaise-free version (which often slipped my mind,) I would just eat the French fries even if I was still hungry after finishing them.

Although it was not a huge problem, this is something that troubled me for years because I couldn’t understand what was the cause of it.


An then, one day I realized…

One day when I was in college, I was watching a cooking show on TV and they showed how to make mayonnaise at home. I remember it as if it were yesterday. They said: “the ingredients for homemade mayonnaise are: eggs, salt, lemon and vinegar” and at that moment I thought to myself: “vinegar???

The 3 seconds that followed felt like a couple of minutes. Suddenly, I had flashbacks that brought me back to my childhood during the few times that I fell down while I was playing around at home and ended up hitting my head against the floor. Each one of those times, my mom would lovingly pick me up and bring me to the kitchen. Then, she would open the fridge and get a bottle of cold vinegar to pour some of it onto a kitchen towel to press it against the area of my head that was in pain.

To this day, I am not sure if that actually helped (I can’t remember) but according to to my mom, it helped to reduce the swelling (home remedies, who knows?)

During this 3 second flashback, I was able to feel the pain, hear my five-year-old self cry and get a good whiff of that saturating smell. The vinegar!

Flashback over. Those 3 seconds helped me realize that was it. That was the reason why I hated mayonnaise. It was because of the vinegar. Its smell reminded me of the pain, the crying and the stress I felt at times during my childhood. Even if they were accidental falls, my brain made the connection (similar to Pavlov´s Dogs)

I had associated the smell of vinegar with pain, and because of this the mere smell of mayonnaise made me feel repulsed. It was a mental association that had made my life unnecessarily difficult for years.

After understanding what caused my mayonnaise-related distress, it suddenly went away. From that day on, I was able to enjoy a sandwich full of mayonnaise just like everybody else.

How does the Brain work?

This episode got me curious about the mind. “How was it possible that something so small, that happened when I was a little kid, had stuck with me for so many years?” “Why does that even happen?” “What else am I carrying around without realizing it?” These are all questions that came to mind during the days that followed what I’ve come to call “The Mayonnaise Revelation.”

Since that day, understanding how the brain works and the impact it has on our lives has been a topic of interest for me.

Over time, I have read many interesting materials on the topic. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence is a valuable book I strongly recommend and a great place to get started. In his book, Mr. Goleman explains how our surroundings have changed “quickly” in recent centuries, which has not given us enough time for our brain’s evolution to catch up.

Centuries ago, our brain had to learn quick to help us survive. This often meant recording the sounds or smells of a predator in order to make a decision between fighting or escaping as quickly as possible.

“The emotional brain responds to an event more quickly than the thinking brain.”

-Daniel Goleman


This process of compiling a mental catalog of threats was crucial for survival centuries ago. However, there are times when it can be problematic in the modern world, and learning a new languages can be one of those scenarios.

If you are trained to be afraid of making mistakes while learning Spanish in school, that is a mental association that will make things unnecessarily difficult over time.

Why? Because even after a few years of finishing school, your brain will associate the process of learning Spanish with the discomfort and stress experienced in school previously.

This kind of mental associations are particularly strong when an emotional component is involved. So, if you ever felt afraid of being embarrassed in front of your classmates for answering a question incorrectly in Spanish class, chances are you have a few negative mental associations of which you will get rid of today after reading this article.

Just like it happened with “The Mayonnaise Revelation”, once you become aware of the seemingly hidden mental associations that affect your Spanish learning experience, you will be able to set free from the mental restraints that have been holding you back.


Can your Mind really make Things more Difficult?

So, coming back to the initial question. Can negative mental associations affect you while learning Spanish? The answer is: yes they can, and the opposite is also true.

In fact, you can retrain your brain so it sees learning Spanish as a fun and interesting activity. One simple way to accomplish this is to use the power of repetition to influence the brain. If you say the wrong word or find yourself struggling with a verb in Spanish, instead of thinking something that sounds like: “this is impossible. I’m never going to learn the language. There are too many words to learn”, consciously choose to think something that sounds more like: “This is easy. I am learning. It’s just a matter of time and I am getting better every day. Thank you!”

Over time, this will change your mental attitude (mental association) towards learning Spanish and it will help you to see it as a process of constant growth that is challenging and fun at the same time.

What do you think about this topic?

Have you had any experience with negative mental associations?

Share them in the comments so we can all learn from each other.


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