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Brain Coach Answers: How can I improve my short term memory? Is there a daily exercise I can do to improve it?

Q: How can I improve my mem­ory? Is there a daily exer­cise I can do to improve it?

A: The most impor­tant com­po­nent of mem­ory is atten­tion. By choos­ing to attend to some­thing and focus on it, you cre­ate a per­sonal inter­ac­tion with it, which gives it per­sonal mean­ing, mak­ing it eas­ier to remember.

Elab­o­ra­tion and rep­e­ti­tion are the most com­mon ways of cre­at­ing that per­sonal inter­ac­tion. Elab­o­ra­tion involves cre­at­ing a rich con­text for the expe­ri­ence by adding together visual, audi­tory, and other infor­ma­tion about the fact. By weav­ing a web of infor­ma­tion around that fact, you cre­ate mul­ti­ple access points to that piece of infor­ma­tion. On the other hand, rep­e­ti­tion drills in the same path­way over and over until it is a well-worn path that you can eas­ily find.

One com­mon tech­nique used by stu­dents, is actu­ally, not that help­ful. Mnemonic tech­niques of using the first let­ter of each word in a series won’t help you remem­ber the actual words. It will help you remem­ber the order of words you already know. The phrase My Very Ener­getic Mother Just Screamed Utter Non­sense can help you remem­ber the order the plan­ets in our solar sys­tem, but it won’t help you recall the indi­vid­ual planet names: Mer­cury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Sat­urn, Uranus, Nep­tune.

These tech­niques do help you improve your mem­ory on a behav­ioral level, but not on a fun­da­men­tal brain struc­ture level. The main rea­son it gets harder for you to learn and remem­ber new things as you age is that your brain’s pro­cess­ing speed slows down as you get older. It becomes harder to do more than one thing at the same time, so it’s eas­ier to get con­fused. Your brain may also become less flex­i­ble, so it’s harder to change learn­ing strate­gies in mid-stream. All these things mean it becomes harder to focus. So far, there’s noth­ing you can do to change your brain’s pro­cess­ing speed, but there are tech­niques you can use to increase your learn­ing per­for­mance, even if your pro­cess­ing speed has slowed.

Focus
Alert­ness, focus, con­cen­tra­tion, moti­va­tion, and height­ened aware­ness are largely a mat­ter of atti­tude. Focus takes effort. In fact, most mem­ory com­plaints have noth­ing to do with the actual abil­ity of the brain to remem­ber things. They come from a fail­ure to focus prop­erly on the task at hand.

If you want to learn or remem­ber some­thing, con­cen­trate on just that one thing. Tune out every­thing else. The harder the task, the more impor­tant it is to tune out dis­trac­tions. (If some­one tells you they can do their home­work bet­ter with the TV or radio on, don’t believe it. Any speech or speech-like sounds auto­mat­i­cally use up part of your brain’s atten­tion capac­ity, whether you are aware of it or not.) In other words, it can be hard to do more than one thing at once, and it nat­u­rally gets harder as you get older. The solu­tion is to make more of an effort not to let your­self get dis­tracted until you’ve fin­ished what you have to do.

Strat­egy:
When you learn some­thing new, take breaks so that the facts won’t inter­fere with one another as you study them. If you’ve ever been to a movie dou­ble fea­ture, you know that you’ll have a hard time remem­ber­ing the plot and details of the first movie imme­di­ately after see­ing the sec­ond. Inter­fer­ence also works the other way. Some­times when your friend gets a new tele­phone num­ber, the old one will still be so famil­iar to you that it’s hard to remem­ber the new one.

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