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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.

Keep read­ing…

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15 Responses

  1. Hueina Su says:

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

  2. Caroline says:

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

  3. haris says:

    hi,
    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 says:

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

  5. Nyiligira john says:

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

  6. Alvaro says:

    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 says:

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

  8. Mike says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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. 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 says:

    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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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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