What is short-term memory, exactly? Understand what it is, how it compares to working memory, and the four things you must do to improve your memory.
You forgot why you walked into a room.
You can’t remember something you just read.
You met your new neighbor then immediately forgot her name.
If moments like these sound familiar, you may have some degree of short-term memory loss.
This kind of forgetfulness can be embarrassing.
It can also be dangerous when you’re doing everyday tasks like driving, cooking, or trying to cross a busy street.
But before we take a look at how to improve short-term memory, let’s get a clear understanding of what it really is.
There’s some confusion about the definition and use of the term, even among the experts.
The Three Stages of Memory
To understand what short-term memory is, we need to see where it fits into the picture of how memory works.
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 you to almost photographically retain an image, sound, or other sensation.
These ultra-short-term memories immediately move into short-term memory.
Short-term memory acts as a filter and a temporary holding tank.
This is where sensory memories are either filtered out and forgotten or put into long-term memory.
Long-term memory is where information that’s been determined to have value 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.
Your short-term memory works like your computer’s RAM, which provides working space for short computations.
Your long-term memory is like your computer’s hard drive, where data is stored permanently.
Keep in mind that no one really knows exactly how the brain works and that the “Three Stages of Memory” is a theory that describes how scientists think memory works.
Since our knowledge of the brain has grown geometrically 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 how your short-term memory fits into the whole picture, let’s look at it in greater depth.
Your short-term memory is where you temporarily store small bits of information, usually for only 15-30 seconds.
Think of it as your brain’s “scratch pad.”
Short-term memory isn’t a place in the brain as much as it’s a mental process.
✓Mind Lab Pro Brain Supplement Optimizes brain health, supports memory, focus & mood
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 to remember it.
Your short-term memory also acts as a filter, deciding what’s 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 your brain from being overwhelmed.
More on Be Brain Fit:
Short-Term Memory Loss Causes and Solutions
Short-Term Memory Capacity
For years it was thought that we could store seven pieces of information, give or take a few, in our short-term memory. (1)
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. (2)
Short-Term Memory Loss Is Not Amnesia
Sometimes people refer to short-term memory loss as a memory problem that is temporary.
Temporary memory loss, such as caused by a bump on the head, is correctly referred to as transient memory loss, not short-term memory loss.
This kind of memory loss is a common theme in books and movies, but in real life is actually quite rare.
Short-term memory loss has nothing to do with how long you have it, but which stage of the memory process is affected.
What About Working Memory?
You may be reading this because you want to know how to improve working memory.
Where does “working memory” fit into this picture?
Working memory is often used interchangeably with short-term memory even by the experts.
Unless you’re in the brain business, knowing that they are basically the same thing is sufficient.
The steps you would take to improve working memory would be the same as you’d take to improve short-term memory.
But if you’d like to know the details, here’s the difference:
Like short-term memory, working memory temporarily stores information.
But it also organizes and manipulates it. (3)
The term short-term memory came first.
Working memory was coined in the 1960’s and was influenced by the advent of the computer and the analogy that your brain works like one.
Most psychologists today believe the theory of working memory, which encompasses active manipulation of information, to be more accurate than the short-term memory theory. (4)
More on Be Brain Fit:
Top 9 Acetylcholine Supplements to Boost Memory and Cognition
How to Improve Short-Term Memory
Short-term memory loss can be inconvenient, frustrating, and embarrassing.
And of course, you want to keep it from getting worse.
There’s more than one basic approach to improve your short-term memory.
You’ll get best results if you do them all.
More on Be Brain Fit:
36 Proven Ways to Improve Your Memory
Mental Exercises and Tips
First, there are memory improvement tips you can use that will help you retain new information.
Do one thing at a time. Your brain has to pick what to remember.
Don’t give it the choice to filter out what you want to remember.
Avoid distractions. Short-term memory is a fragile thing.
If something distracts you on the way to the kitchen, you’ll forget why you’re there.
Fully concentrate. 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.
✓Hypnosis Live Change your mind & your life - 200+ professional self-hypnosis MP3s
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. (5)
Memory bait. Is there something you need to learn for work or a topic your spouse would like to share with you?
Memorize a few basics about a topic.
This foundation of memories will make your brain more sticky for new memories on this topic.
SUBJECT: Sharper thinking
Movies like Limitless and Lucy have fueled an interest in the power of nootropics. Nootropics are substances that claim to make you smarter, highly focused, and more productive.
But many of the products containing these substances are neither helpful nor harmless.
We've looked closely at the market and found a supplement that combines many of the most effective, safe and natural brain enhancers we know.
These enhancers work with your brain's own neurotransmitters to really improve your mental energy, clarity, focus and mood. Read more about it below.
Deane & Dr. Pat
Chunk. 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.
Write it down. The act of writing something requires concentration and will further help you remember.
Writing helps you remember better than typing the same information into your electronics.
Turns out that, at least where you memory is concerned, “the pen is mightier than the keyboard”! (6)
Take a walk. Walking in nature can improve short-term memory.
If you can’t walk outside, just looking at an image of a natural scene can help. (7)
Drink some coffee. Caffeine exerts a positive effect on short-term memory and reaction times.
More on Be Brain Fit:
Choosing Memory Supplements That Work
Upgrade to a Brain-Healthy Lifestyle
The second approach to improving your memory is not a quick fix — it’s developing a brain-healthy lifestyle.
We’ve already made a computer analogy to your brain. Twice.
Now is the time for a car analogy instead.
Imagine you never changed your oil or had general maintenance performed, and you filled your tank with cheap, crappy gas.
You wouldn’t expect this rust bucket to go the distance, would you?
Yet most of us take our brains for granted, then wonder why they eventually stop working as well as they used to.
✓Stress Relief Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
On our site, you’ll find loads of in-depth information on your brain’s requirements for optimal health and function.
But here’s a very quick overview.
- Eat a healthy diet high in “real food” and low in processed foods and sugar.
- Take appropriate brain supplements.
- Get plenty of sleep, exercise, and mental stimulation.
- Reduce stress — it’s a brain cell killer.
More on Be Brain Fit:
Key Vitamins for Memory: Deficiencies Are Common
Get Underlying Health Conditions Under Control
One last important factor that can be the root cause memory loss is underlying health conditions.
Some of the most common health conditions that can contribute to memory loss include thyroid disorders, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, cancer, depression, and diabetes.
If you have any doubt that you have an underlying health condition that is contributing to your memory loss, talk to your doctor.
Sometimes the fix can be as simple as changing a medication or getting a treatable health condition under control.
A Word About Medications
Unfortunately, sometimes the cause of memory loss can be the treatment.
There are many medications that list memory loss as a side effect.
Two of the worst are statin drugs, used to lower cholesterol, and sleeping pills.
If you are taking any medications you suspect could be causing your memory loss, check our list of 20 Kinds of Drugs That Cause Memory Loss.
When Is Short-Term Memory Loss Serious?
Your short-term memory is designed to filter and forget what it deems unimportant, which is most information it receives.
So if you can’t remember what you had for breakfast yesterday, it’s likely that this piece of information never made it into your long-term memory.
After all, it’s not important in the scheme of things.
But still it doesn’t feel normal.
So how can you tell if your memory problem is serious?
More on Be Brain Fit:
Memory Problems: Normal or Serious?
The biggest fear people have about short-term memory loss is that they’re getting Alzheimer’s.
While this is rarely the case, short-term memory loss is the first sign of the early stages of Alzheimer’s. (9)
When memory loss is a precursor of this disease it follows a particular pattern.
Generally, a person in the first stages of Alzheimer’s won’t remember details of today or last week, yet they’ll very clearly remember details of their distant past.
Because short-term memory is essential for absorbing new information, its impairment eventually interferes with the ability to interact socially and perform normal tasks.
Occasional, minor memory loss is mostly an annoyance.
But if your bad memory has ever scared you or concerned others, or you’ve forgotten something truly important, you should be concerned.