Short-term memory allows us to temporarily hold information in mind while working with it – a crucial ability for learning, reasoning and daily tasks. But our short-term memory capacity is limited. Information not rehearsed quickly decays and is forgotten. Poor short-term memory makes it hard to retain instructions, recall conversations and access memorized facts when needed. The good news is research shows we can substantially boost short-term memory at any age using the science-backed strategies below.
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What Is Short-Term Memory?
Short-term memory, also called working memory, is the brain system that allows us to actively hold information temporarily while using and manipulating it:
- When doing mental math
- While following directions
- To grasp the meaning of a sentence as you read
- To keep a new phone number in mind
- To retain someone’s name long enough to introduce them
We can store about 4-7 items in short-term memory. Without rehearsal, that information decays after 10-15 seconds. This fleeting nature makes short-term memory a bottleneck for learning and thinking, since we can only work with tiny amounts of information at once before they slip away.
Improving short-term memory expands that capacity so we can take in more information, retain it longer and link it together into more complex ideas.
Test Your Short Term Memory
Before trying to improve your short term memory, it’s helpful to test it so you know where you currently stand. Here are two simple ways to test your short term memory:
Digit Span Test
This test involves memorizing a sequence of numbers.
- Have a friend or family member read a sequence of random numbers aloud at a rate of one number per second.
- When they are done, repeat back the sequence exactly as it was read.
- Start with a sequence of 5 numbers and increase the length by 1 until it becomes too difficult to remember.
- The longest sequence you can correctly repeat back is your digit span.
Word Recall Test
This test involves memorizing and recalling a list of words.
- Have someone read you a list of 15 random words at a rate of one word every 2 seconds.
- When they finish, write down as many words from the list as you can remember, in any order.
- Compare your list to the original list to determine your word recall score.
Use these tests from time to time to track improvements in your short term memory over time.
Why Short-Term Memory Matters
Having robust short-term memory capacities is crucial for:
- Academic skills – reading, math, learning, test taking
- Focus and productivity – less forgetting what we’re doing
- Reading comprehension – retaining key points across sentences
- Conversation skills – following along and responding
- Mental agility – faster information processing and problem solving
- Instructions – holding multi-step directions in mind
- Memory consolidation – transitioning new facts into long-term storage
Given how vital strong short-term memory is for cognitive abilities and daily effectiveness, it’s worth dedicating time to train this “mental muscle”.
10 Tips To Improve Short-Term Memory
Research suggests we can boost short-term memory capacity and duration through purposeful practice and lifestyle choices.
1. Exercise More
Aerobic exercise improves memory span and information processing speed. In kids and older adults, even brief exercise sessions spike short-term retention. Consistent workouts yield lasting gains in memory capacity.
Aim for 30-60 minutes daily of moderate to vigorous exercise like brisk walking, swimming, cycling or sports.
2. Reduce Stress
Chronic stress impairs short-term memory by overloading cognitive resources. Practicing relaxation skills helps minimize those impairing effects:
- Deep breathing – Inhale slowly, exhale deeply
- Progressive muscle relaxation – Systematically tense and release muscle groups
- Guided imagery – Picture calming scenes like nature
- Mindfulness meditation – Direct non-judgmental focus to the present
3. Get More Quality Sleep
Sleep is crucial for memory consolidation. Just one night of missed sleep reduces short-term memory capacity. Optimizing sleep habits provides the restoration needed to boost memory function.
Tips for better sleep:
- Maintain a consistent bedtime and wake time
- Limit caffeine past noon
- Avoid electronics before bed
- Keep the bedroom comfortable and dark
- Reduce stress and get daily exercise for deeper sleep
4. Challenge Your Brain
Just as physical exercise builds muscles, brain exercises strengthen neural connections involved in memory. Try these short-term memory challenges:
- Memorize longer strings of numbers or words
- Play memory games like Simon Says
- Learn new skills like playing an instrument
- Do puzzles like Sudoku or crossword
- Study a topic in depth to expand knowledge base
5. Use Memory Strategies
Techniques like chunking, visualization and association help us organize information so it’s less of a memory load.
- Chunking – Break long numbers into smaller groups
- Acronyms – Make a word from first letters
- Visualize – Form mental images of to-be-remembered items
- Associate – Link new facts to what you already know
Rehearsing information out loud also boosts retention.
6. Reduce Multitasking
Focusing on one task at a time provides the mental resources for better memory encoding. The chronic distraction of multitasking fragments attention in ways that weaken short-term memory.
Prioritize important tasks and protect focus time. Turn off notifications and avoid switching between tasks.
7. Cut Down on Screen Time
Excessive digital media exposure trains the brain for constant distraction, weakening attention and short-term memory. Set limits on screen entertainment and smartphones. Focus on single-tasking rather than continuous fragmented screen switching.
8. Repeat and Rehearse
Deliberately rehearsing information like new names or directions strengthens memory traces in the brain so information persists longer. Mentally review key facts you want to retain.
9. Make Time for Friends
Social interaction is mentally stimulating and wards off memory loss. Schedule regular social activities to give your brain exercise connecting names and conversations.
10. Evaluate Your Medications
Some prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications like antihistamines impair short-term memory as a side effect. Check with your doctor if memory issues arise after starting a new medication. An alternative that doesn’t impact cognition may be available.
How To Assess Your Short-Term Memory
To test your baseline capacity and track progress, try these short quizzes:
Have someone read a string of random numbers at a rate of one per second. Repeat them back immediately in correct order. Start with 5 digits, then add 1 digit each trial until you can no longer correctly recall full sequence.
Repeat the numbers test using random one-syllable words instead.
Time yourself matching all pairs in a deck of cards flipped over to start. Repeat daily to improve. Lower matching times reflect better short-term memory capacity.
Read a dense one-page passage, then write down all the details you can recall without re-reading. Compare to the original details.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. At what age can you start improving short-term memory?
Memory training activities can benefit preschoolers as young as 3. But adults also gain significantly from practicing memory strategies and brain games. Memory ability remains malleable at any age.
2. How long per day is needed?
Aim for 10-15 minutes of focused memory training like specialized games, plus daily practice incorporating new strategies into routine activities. Consistency is key.
3. Are brain training apps worth it?
Apps with games targeting short-term memory can be helpful. Look for variety and increasing difficulty. But pencil and paper exercises or homemade games make useful (and free) alternatives.
4. What other benefits might I see?
In addition to remembering more information, improved short-term memory supports attention, learning, reading comprehension, mental processing speed, focus and concentration.
5. Is short-term memory the same as working memory?
Short-term memory refers specifically to temporarily storing information. Working memory includes both storage and manipulating information – a closer link to intelligence and aptitude. Enhancing short-term memory boosts overall working memory capacity.
A strong, expanded short-term memory capacity underpins learning, cognition and productivity. Research demonstrates we can substantially boost short-term memory at any age through strategic training and lifestyle choices that support brain health. By taking a comprehensive approach, we can minimize the frustrations of a “slippery” memory and fulfill our mental potential.