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.

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.

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.

Keep read­ing…


  1. Hueina Su on November 19, 2006 at 8:07

    Great infor­ma­tion and strate­gies! Thank you for sub­mit­ting to the Car­ni­val of Healing.

  2. Caroline on November 20, 2006 at 12:53

    Glad you enjoyed it Hueina! For those of you who want to read Car­ni­val of Heal­ing #60, click here.

  3. haris on March 26, 2007 at 4:22

    my name is haris.I am from pakistan,lahore .The math­od of link math­od is so easy and his writer is har­ry lurine.example
    we remem­ber= tree,aeroplane,letters,tops how to remem­ber it.It so easy first link with aero plane and tree link redi­clous and illog­i­cal­ly you see in your mind in the tree lots of planes is

  4. Alvaro on March 26, 2007 at 7:37

    Hel­lo Haris: yes, visu­al­iz­ing fun­ny asso­ci­a­tions is anoth­er tech­nique to remem­ber things. Thanks!

  5. Nyiligira john on May 20, 2007 at 4:44

    How can i improve my short term mem­o­ry and con­cen­tra­tions, effec­tive think­ing and clarity.please i want advice

  6. Alvaro on May 21, 2007 at 5:57

    Hel­lo John, on top of the advice above, I’d sug­gest you take a look at our Brain Fit­ness Top­ics sec­tion. You will find great infor­ma­tion there.

  7. chukwutem on August 1, 2008 at 9:06

    It was a won­der­ful lec­ture i enjoyed it very much.Please keep up the good work.

  8. Mike on August 28, 2008 at 10:05

    I dis­agree with the state­ment “(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.)”. For me, lis­ten­ing to very soft music helps me focus. If I don’t have music on, my atten­tion span drops dra­mat­i­cal­ly. It has been this way for many years.

  9. nyra on September 8, 2008 at 4:50

    Hel­lo. Thanks so much for this web­site, it is very helpful!

    I’m actu­al­ly doing a sci­ence project on short term/long term mem­o­ry and how you can improve it. I’m test­ing to see if Brain Age (the video game) excer­sizes can help.

    This web­site has been great so far, and if you have any oth­er info, I’d love to hear it! Thanks!

  10. KASI on October 20, 2009 at 8:44

    Com­mitt­ment with con­cen­tra­tion is the key to short,medium or long term meme­o­ry. Some of our Kids age events are mem­o­rable even today because we did them with com­mit­ted con­cen­traion whether play­ing or angry­ing or naugh­t­ing. But at this adult age we think some thing , tel out someother thing and do entire­ly dif­fer­ent thing whcih dis­ables us to rec­ol­lect our thoughts, words and deeds after moments.

  11. John Barrella on October 21, 2009 at 12:59

    So, what is most need­ed, is the instill in your “awareness”…of what the heck is “wrong”. By know­ing what is wrong…then you can learn how to com­pen­sate for it. Neuropsych.testing…plus cog­ni­tive reme­di­a­tion classes…for as long as they are need­ed. Look into that…and if you get that assistance…you may become aware of symp­toms you may have nev­er thought of having…that may sound scary…BUT…THERE IS COMFORT OF AWARENESS…which will be a gift…a tremen­dous gift…Ninuccio

  12. Faruk on November 20, 2009 at 4:59

    I appre­ci­ate every thing about the short/long brain term. When i was younger, i could assim­i­late and remem­ber very fast. But now the sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent. I will try and employ d strate­gies and see if i will improve

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SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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