At one point or another, we’ve all struggled with forgetting, whether it’s walking into another room and forget why we’re there or trying to find the keys we just laid down. Fortunately, there are simple steps that can teach anyone how to improve short term memory.
Short term memory is accessed and utilized while reading this sentence because the beginning of the sentence needs to be held in the mind and understood while the rest is read. Such memory can be thought of as the brain’s post-it note or scratch pad, describing the brain’s ability to hold small amounts of information in an active, accessible state for a limited duration, typically thought to last no longer than seconds.
Researchers have found it difficult to distinguish a clear boundary between long and short term memory because it is assumed that all memories pass from short to long term storage after some time. The exact way this transfer takes place remains up for debate as no clear consensus has been made.
There are, however, some key aspects of STM that distinguish it from long term and working memory:
- Limited Capacity
- Limited Duration
While examining the STM, Miller hypothesized that most adults can store between five and nine items, with most adults being able to hold an average of 7 items. Attempting to store any more than nine items will cause declining functioning and effectiveness.
Research conducted by Brown and Peterson concluded that the STM decays with the passage of time. Unrehearsed information can be stored an average of 18 seconds. Additionally, the duration items will stay is directly related to the number of chunks present. The more chunks there are in the short term memory the higher the interference the brain will have when trying to recall the information.
Causes of memory loss
- Excessive drug use (including alcohol and tobacco)
- Nutritional deficiency
- Head Injury
How to improve it
Research is still controversial on the effectiveness of certain techniques to improve STM. Most neurological experts agree that these factors play a significant role in the short term memory’s success:
- Continuous Education
- Maintaining a healthy body and mind
- Reducing Stress
- Remaining in a distraction-free area
- Taking frequent breaks
This magic number of 7 item slots does not fully explain the amount of information that can be stored because the brain is able to group several items together to take up only one item ‘slot’. This is called ‘chunking’. For example, in the sequence 0914929011, the brain can chunk ‘1492’ as one item because of its association with the year Columbus discovered America.
By chunking items together, ideally with pauses between every third and fourth item, the capacity can be increased by maximizing the use of each information slot. Prior knowledge also plays a significant role in the brain’s ability to chunk information because in order to chunk words, numbers, or phrases they must be familiar with the brain and activate information stored in the long term memory. To explain, in the example above ‘1492’ would not have been so easily chunked in the mind if the brain did not already have attached significance to the date.
Continuous Education and Brain Training
Though much more research is needed for a conclusive, proven method, researcher Monique Williams points out that early research is suggesting “use it or lose it” in regards to memory and memory degradation. Mental activity is required to stimulate our connections in the brain and preserve our mental state. As we age, our brains do not require less stimulation but rather even more to continuously keep the connections in the brain active and ready.
Recently, several online companies have been advertising a way to train your brain and improve STM. There are countless apps to be found on smart phones, tablets, and other mobile devices.
Some of the more famous brain training companies include:
These training programs are developed to include visual and verbal tasks, memory trials, and repeated challenges. The idea behind the effectiveness is that improvement will occur with practice just as a muscle becomes stronger when used repeatedly.
Research has been inconclusive and results highly variable as shown in a study conducted by Monica Melby-Lervag and Charles Hulme for the American Psychological Association. It was concluded that, “Our meta-analyses show clearly that these training programs give only near-transfer effects, and there is no convincing evidence that even such near-transfer effects are durable”.
Healthy Body & Mind
A healthy, functioning STM and the brain itself is reliant on a healthy body to support it. Research has proven that when exercising, metabolic brain function does increase which will lead to improvements in memory.
By being physically active for at least 30 minutes every day, brain cells will be better oxygenated and over time the brain can even stimulate the development of new brain cells.
Additionally, a heart healthy diet will improve memory as declining memory has been associated with heart disease.
Stress has been shown to cause numerous physical ailments so it is not surprising that reducing stress levels can contribute to improving your brain’s STM functioning.
Studies have shown that the more periods of stress that is experienced, with stress being measured as financial hardship and joblessness, the more likely dementia or serious memory problems are to develop. High levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, have been linked to memory loss.
Brain functioning will also significantly improve by reducing unhealthy problems that stress the body and mind such as not getting enough sleep and smoking cigarettes.
Why focus on improving memory?
- Avoid memory loss complications
- Improve reading, comprehension, and recall
Memory loss is a common medical problem for aging adults. Impaired STM can interfere with the ability to complete everyday tasks. Those suffering from this condition are often forced to carry schedules, note cards, and daily trackers to avoid doing the same things repeatedly because they have forgotten they already completed the activity.
Improving the STM will assist in successfully managing day to day activities. Verbal short term memory has been proven to have a significant impact on reading and comprehending instructions. By strengthening the STM these tasks will become less challenging. Additionally, recalling information will come easier with practice.
Though the memory can be correlated to the brain’s scratch pad, it is so much more than simply that. The information stored is both fleeting and limited in capacity, yet it is the same information that will transfer to the long term memory for later utilization. The importance of a well functioning STM is apparent and improvement can be attained fairly easily.
Further research is needed, but neurological experts have concluded that constant and continuous education, a healthy body, reducing stress, taking frequent breaks, and limiting distractions are the five main keys to improving short term memory. Such improvement will provide benefits such as reducing the chances of memory loss and improving cognitive functions such as reading, comprehension, and information recall.
Without the three types of memory (short, long, and working) mankind would be unable to complete basic tasks required to survive.
By improving short term memory we are propelling ourselves forward allowing for higher learning and a higher quality of life.