Science Questions

Can I improve my short-term memory?

Mon, 4th Jul 2016

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Shepherd asked:

I am male aged 43 and I have such a short memory that I can forget certain names so easily - even 5 mins later. I also have problem recollecting events or major words or names at work. I can even forget to complete a statement while talking to someone and my attention gets interrupted during my talking. How can I improve my memory?


Kat Arney put this to neuroscientist Laura Ford, from the University of Sleeping while studyingCambridge...

Laura - If you imagine yourself at a party and you're listening to someone they’ve just introduced themselves and you think…

Chris - Kat at a party…

Laura - I also have decided to mention parties twice.

Kat - I'm interested in this because I have like goldfish memory span for people’s names. You can introduce me to someone and like literally, it’s just gone.

Laura - So the idea is, often, we’re thinking about what do we want to say next, how important this person might be, or even, “where is our drink?” Or whatever it might be and actually, we didn’t attend to it in the first place. And then we look at theories of attention, it does say that we can shallowly process things that are outside of our main focus. But it’s much less likely to get into the very competitive working memory store so that we can recall it. So, the first thing I would say is listen, which sounds very simplistic but it’s definitely important. There's two ways I want to go about thinking about this now. One of them is what we’re doing in the neuroscience world and that’s, there's lots of things around working memory training.

Kat - So, is these things like if I meet someone called Bob, I need to go, “Hi, Bob. How’s things with you, Bob?” Or just say to myself like, “Bob, Bob, Bob.”

Laura - Yeah. So this is the second part which is actually the strategies that will help you really and they can be two different things. So repetition is absolutely one and what you're doing is you're kind of embedding it into your pre-existing representations of a memory. So you're actually using your long term memory stores to enable that process. That’s really what mnemonics works on which is incredibly fascinating. But I mean, we’ve all done it and actually, I can do a whistle stop tour of some things that will help you in that scenario specifically.

Kat - How do I remember people’s names at parties?

Laura - How do you remember people’s names? Okay, so the first thing you can do is multisensory integration. So, think about where that person is, what kind of aftershave they might have on, if you’ve got a picture of the visual scene. What we know is that the more that we’re tapping into, the more likely it is to have a long lasting representation. You’ve also got very fun pictures that you can make where for example if that person’s name is Annabelle. You can imagine a really outrageous huge bell with An on the front and Na on the back, and it can be making a really loud noise. The more crazy that you make it, the more likely you're able to recall that piece of information and it’s very quick. It’s one image and you’ve picked up the whole scene. You can even put it in any place that you'd like. So that’s very interesting and if in doubt, you can always use a notepad.

Kat - That’s what I tend to do. So, loads and loads of tips there. Hopefully, our listener (Sheperd) will – next time at a party, we’ll all need any kind of memory like that, write it down and make outrageous pictures. Thanks very much.


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Yes, but don't confuse memory with intelligence.
If this is a recent deterioration eg over last few years, then please have a medical check up.
The move from short to long term memory depends on how important the brain thinks the info is. Repetition helps and vocalising eg repeat a person's name back to them when first meeting -"pleased to meet you Fred". It also requires training the mind to focus and pay attention, not get distracted.
I would recommend one of Tony Buzan's books eg use your head. He covers note taking, memorisation, visualisation. There are also resources on the web.
Some people on the dyslexia ADD spectrum have problems with working memory, try reading "that's the way I think" David Grant.
Many people on this spectrum describe thoughts as being 'greased' or slippery.

Others on the forum might have other ideas that could help.
Colin2B, Sat, 14th Feb 2015

I‘m 23 years old, and I also easily going to forget something that I need to do. Poor memory! but it may just normal? Everyone will encounter such condition. Not only to the brain, but also pay attention to the body exercise. diethyl, Sun, 15th Feb 2015

I agree, but what is normal. We are used to the stereotype of the absent minded professor who's mind is so full that she forgets to eat, wash, sleep... But a change from what is normal for us might indicate, say, small vessel disease. Yes, exercise, keeping weight down, avoiding diabetes can help ward off vascular dementia, but it's worth getting checked out.
Some people may have had problems since birth eg ADD where they can be very intelligent as measured by verbal reasoning tests, but are handicapped by poor working memory. Again, worth getting assessed.
One thing is certain, whatever is normal now won't get better in the future. Hang on to what you've got.

Colin2B, Sun, 15th Feb 2015

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