Last updated September 7, 2022.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.
If you often forget why you walked into a room or can’t remember something you just read, your short-term memory could use some help. Here’s what to do.
Do moments like these sound familiar?
- You forget why you walked into a room.
- You can’t remember something you just read.
- You immediately forget the name of someone you just met.
This kind of forgetfulness can be embarrassing.
It can also be dangerous when you’re doing everyday tasks like driving or cooking.
Fortunately, there’s much you can do to improve your short-term memory.
The Three Stages of Memory
There’s some confusion about the definition and use of the term short-term memory, even among experts.
To understand short-term memory, we need to see how it fits into the whole memory process.
Psychologists believe that we have one memory system with three separate stages — sensory, short-term, and long-term.
The diagram below summarizes the three stages of memory.
Sensory memory is fleeting, lasting less than half a second.
It allows us to almost photographically retain an image, sound, or other sensation.
These ultra-short-term memories immediately move into short-term memory.
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Short-term memory acts as a filter and temporary storage.
This is where sensory memories are either filtered out and forgotten, or put into long-term memory.
Long-term memory is where information the brain has deemed valuable is held permanently.
Unlike sensory and short-term memories, long-term memory can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely.
A good analogy of how memory works is to compare it to a computer.
Short-term memory works like a computer’s RAM, which provides working space for short computations.
Long-term memory is like the computer’s hard drive, where data is stored permanently.
Keep in mind that no one really knows exactly how memory works or where memories are stored.
The “Three Stages of Memory” is a theory that describes how scientists think memory works.
Since our knowledge of the brain has grown exponentially in recent years and will continue to do so, it’s likely that some changes will be made to this model.
What Is Short-Term Memory?
Now that you know the role that short-term memory plays in the whole picture, let’s look at it in greater depth.
Short-term memory is where small bits of information are temporarily stored, usually for only 15-30 seconds.
Think of it as the brain’s scratch pad.
While there’s evidence that consolidation of short-term memories into long-term memories largely takes place in the hippocampus, short-term memory isn’t a place in the brain as much as it’s a mental process.
You use your short-term memory to do things like temporarily memorize a phone number until you can jot it down or remember a comment you wish to add to a conversation.
This kind of information quickly disappears unless you make a point of remembering it.
Your short-term memory also acts as a filter, deciding what information is worth keeping and what should be discarded.
Clearly, you don’t want or need to remember every single detail of everything that’s ever happened to you.
This ability to discard useless information keeps the brain from being overwhelmed.
Short-Term Memory Capacity
For years, it was thought that we could store seven pieces of information, give or take a few, in short-term memory.
But the latest research has found that the actual number may be lower than that.
It’s more likely that only four pieces of information can normally be remembered at one time.
Working Memory: Similar to Short-Term Memory
You may have come across the term working memory.
It is often used interchangeably with short-term memory.
Like short-term memory, working memory temporarily stores information.
But it also organizes and manipulates it.
The term “short-term memory” came first.
Working memory was coined in the 1960s and was influenced by the advent of the computer and its similarity to the working of the brain.
Most psychologists today believe that the theory of working memory, which encompasses active manipulation of information, is more accurate than the short-term memory theory.
However, understanding that they are basically the same thing is sufficient for the layperson.
The steps you would take to boost working memory would be the same as those you’d take to improve short-term memory.
Guidelines for Improving Short-Term Memory
Short-term memory loss can be inconvenient, frustrating, and embarrassing.
And, of course, if it’s a problem for you, you want to keep it from getting worse.
There are many proven ways to improve brain health (and thus memory), such as:
- Eating a healthy diet that is high in unprocessed food and low in processed foods, trans fats, and sugar.
- Getting plenty of sleep, exercise, and mental stimulation.
- Avoiding “brain drains” like stress and harmful substances.
- Taking appropriate supplements.
In addition to these foundations of brain health, there are additional evidence-based ways to specifically enhance short-term memory and/or working memory.
First, we’ll look at foods, supplements, and other lifestyle habits that can help your brain function better.
" Normally, we can remember about 4 bits of information at a time. But when you don’t get enough sleep, that number decreases to 1 or 2.
Then, we’ll consider the obstacles to a better short-term memory that need to be avoided.
And lastly, besides getting your brain healthier, you’ll read about simple memory improvement techniques that train your memory to work better.
Improve Short-Term Memory With Diet
If you are looking for an eating plan to improve your overall health, attain your ideal weight, and improve your memory, you won’t go wrong following the Mediterranean diet.
It’s generally considered to be the healthiest eating plan of all.
And a review of studies on the Mediterranean diet found it to be beneficial for both long-term and working memory.
A few specific foods have also been found to help short-term memory.
Chocolate may the most delicious way to improve your memory.
A review of studies on the brain benefits of cocoa found that it improved general cognition, attention, processing speed, and working memory.
But dark chocolate has the most brain health benefits.
Ginger is a versatile food and supplement that was traditionally used to treat memory loss and dementia.
When healthy middle-aged adults were given dried ginger supplements, they showed improvement in working memory, reaction time, and attention.
If you are among the billions of people who start the day with caffeine, you’ll be happy to know that caffeinated beverages improve both short-term and long-term memory.
Johns Hopkins researchers found that caffeine consumption enhances certain kinds of memories for up to 24 hours.
Speaking of beverages, drink plenty of water.
It’s estimated that 75% of the US population is chronically dehydrated.
Even mild dehydration causes measurable brain shrinkage which affects short-term memory, concentration, and alertness.
One Food to Avoid — White Sugar
One food you should minimize for optimal brain health and function is white sugar.
White sugar consumption increases brain inflammation, damages neurons, and alters brainwave patterns, making it hard to think clearly.
It raises blood glucose levels which affects your short-term memory, attention span, and mood.
Sugar is highly suspected of being a root cause of Alzheimer’s which many experts now believe is a form of diabetes of the brain.
Supplements for Short-Term Memory
While there are hundreds of supplements that qualify as brain supplements, only a handful have been found to specifically improve short-term memory.
Ginkgo biloba is one of the most popular brain supplements in the world.
In one study in healthy adults, researchers reported that ginkgo extract improved short-term memory “very significantly.”
Magnesium l-threonate is a relatively new magnesium chelate that’s designed to help magnesium enter the brain.
Magnesium l-threonate aids learning and improves short-term memory, as well as working memory and long-term memory.
When picking a magnesium supplement, avoid magnesium sulfate, the kind found in Epsom salts.
This form of magnesium is great for soaking sore muscles, but may be harmful to the brain.
There are reports of magnesium sulfate triggering short-term memory loss, brain fog, and other kinds of cognitive issues.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 essential fatty acid that’s a major building block of brain cells.
People who don’t get enough DHA actually have structurally smaller brains.
Fish oil, a popular source of DHA, has been shown to improve working memory in young adults by 23%.
Curcumin is the main bioactive compound in the Indian spice turmeric.
One study found that a single dose of curcumin resulted in a noticeable improvement in working memory, mood, and attention in healthy seniors.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is an impressive cognitive enhancer, even more so than its popular Asian counterpart (Panax ginseng).
Research shows that it gets to work quickly, improving short-term memory and reaction times within a few hours after taking a single dose.
Nicotine is among the most controversial cognitive enhancers.
An analysis of 41 studies on nicotine reached the surprising conclusion that it is one of the most reliable cognitive enhancers known and, when ingested apart from smoking, is surprisingly safe.
It was found to improve short-term memory, working memory, fine motor skills, attention, accuracy, and response time.
It also shows promise in treating currently incurable brain diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Avoid Drugs That Cause Short-Term Memory Loss
We’ve discussed substances that can enhance short-term memory.
Now let’s look at those that can sabotage it.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that recreational substances ranging from alcohol and marijuana to heroin and cocaine take a toll on short-term memory.
The effect varies by drug and degree of use, but, in general, reducing their use is one of the best things you can do to keep your brain healthy and your memory sharp.
However, you might not realize that many prescription drugs cause short-term memory loss as well.
Two of the worst for short-term memory loss are anti-anxiety drugs (such as benzodiazepines) and narcotic painkillers (opioid analgesics).
These drugs are anticholinergic which means that they block the action of acetylcholine, the main brain chemical associated with memory and learning.
If you take either of these kinds of drugs, talk to your doctor about alternatives.
In the meantime, if you take any anticholinergic medications, consider taking citicoline, an outstanding supplement for overcoming drug-induced memory loss.
Citicoline is a precursor to acetylcholine and will help maintain a healthy level of this important brain chemical.
Improve Short-Term Memory With Sleep
According to the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, sleep disorders affect 70 million Americans every year.
Getting 8 hours of sleep is not an indulgence; it’s critical for our health and mental well-being.
Lack of quality sleep will impair memory, creativity, judgment, and attention.
It’s during sleep that the brain consolidates memories, filters out metabolic debris, and repairs and creates new brain cells.
This is also when the brain moves memories from short-term storage into long-term storage, clearing the deck for the next day.
Sleep deprivation sharply decreases the amount of information that can be held in short-term memory.
Normally, we can remember about 4 bits of information at a time.
But when we don’t get enough sleep, that number decreases to 1 or 2.
The millions of Americans who suffer from sleep apnea face an additional hazard to their brains.
During sleep, their brains do not get adequate oxygen.
This leads to a loss of brain cells in the hippocampus, where short-term memories are temporarily stored.
Not sure if you’ve got sleep apnea?
The most obvious signs are loud snoring and waking up choking or gasping for breath.
Often you won’t remember these episodes, so your sleeping partner will be the one to tell you.
Other Lifestyle Factors That Enhance Short-Term Memory
Regular physical exercise is a key lifestyle habit for a good memory.
Cardiovascular exercise improves short-term memory and prevents deterioration of the hippocampus, the brain’s primary memory center.
You don’t have to exercise for a long time, or strenuously, to reap these benefits.
It appears that 20 minutes of low-intensity exercise is adequate.
Walking in nature can improve short-term memory.
If you can’t walk outside, even looking at an image of a natural scene can help you recover from mental fatigue.
Just one 20-minute session of yoga has a significant, immediate impact on working memory and concentration.
Stop multitasking — it takes a surprising toll on cognitive performance.
Mental toggling back and forth between tasks disrupts short-term memory.
So stick with doing one thing at a time.
If you have trouble with this, try meditation.
Meditation trains the brain to focus on the present.
It can help your memory get better fast even if you are a beginner.
Study participants who were new to meditation experienced improvements in working memory, executive functioning, energy, and mood after just four mindfulness meditation sessions.
Minimize chronic stress which changes the brain’s function and structure down to the level of our DNA.
It also disrupts the brain’s short-term memory recall.
So take active measures to get your stress under control.
Use Proven Short-Term Memory Techniques
Now that you’ve optimized your brain health, the next step is to learn how to expand your memory capacity.
Having an excellent memory is not something most of us are born with, but it is a skill that can be learned and developed.
In fact, world class memory masters who perform amazing feats of memory all use memory tips, tricks, and techniques.
Here are some of the best tried-and-true memory techniques that can immediately help you remember better.
Write It Down
The act of writing requires concentration and will help you remember.
Writing helps you remember better than typing the same information into an electronic device.
It turns out that, at least where your memory is concerned, “the pen is mightier than the keyboard.”
Do One Thing at a Time
Your brain has to pick what to remember.
Don’t give it the choice to filter out information that you want to remember.
Short-term memory is a fragile thing.
It doesn’t take much to cause you to forget.
Researchers have found that moving from one place to another, such as walking through a doorway, can literally cause you to forget!
Concentrate on the Present
Don’t be thinking about what you’re going to do tomorrow or worry about what happened yesterday.
Your ability to concentrate on the present can greatly enhance your ability to learn and remember new information.
Say It Out Loud
If there’s a fact, name, or number you want to learn, repeat it several times, either out loud or to yourself.
This simple action will help you remember it.
Create Memory Bait
If there is something you need or want to learn, memorize a few basic facts about the subject.
This foundation of memories will make your brain more “sticky” for new memories on this topic.
Chunking is breaking up information into smaller, more memorable bits.
You might have trouble remembering the number 8034273298, but would find it easier to remember 803-427-3298.
That is why phone numbers, social security numbers, and nine-digit zip codes are broken down into smaller chunks.
Mnemonics are memory techniques that were first developed by ancient Greek teachers and philosophers (before books and the internet), when having a good memory was essential.
Examples of mnemonics include acronyms, acrostics, and the “mind palace.”
Address Health Conditions That Affect Memory
Lastly, there are some common health conditions that can contribute to short-term memory loss.
They include nutritional deficiencies, thyroid disorders, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, cancer, depression, and diabetes.
If you suspect that you have an underlying health condition contributing to your memory loss, talk to your doctor.
Getting your condition under control may be the answer to your short-term memory problems.
How to Improve Short-Term Memory: Take the Next Step
Short-term memory acts as your brain’s temporary storage for small bits of information.
You can improve short-term memory with the right kind of foods, supplements, and lifestyle habits.
There are also proven memory techniques that train the memory to make it easier to concentrate, remember, and learn.
The two-pronged approach of optimizing brain health and using memory improvement techniques is the most effective way to overcome short-term memory lapses.
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