Jonathan Levi

Whenever I meet someone new, the same question comes up: 

“So, what do you do for work?”

Like you, I have a few generic replies ready, depending on the context. Usually, it sounds something like this: 

“I own a media company that produces online courses on the topics of memory, learning, and speed reading, among other subjects of interest.”

What doesn’t vary is their response:

“Oh my gosh… I NEED THAT! I have the worst memory!”

Sigh…

It seems like the desire to improve our memories and stave off memory loss is as universal as the desire to stay young and healthy. 

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Here’s the good news: Unlike adding more years to your youth, you can add more bandwidth to your memory.

But in order to do so, we must understand several fundamentals. Consider these seven points as you work to sharpen your short-term memory:

1. There is no such thing as plain and simple “memory.” 

Most people understand very little about what their memory is, how it works, and why. Can you blame them? We’re all the product of an educational system that spends a full year teaching us to calculate the angle of a line tangent to a circle, but never once teaches us about the brain that we’re supposedly there to enrich.

(By the way, did you know that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe? Pretty cool!)

When you set out to improve your memory, it’s important to make a few distinctions.

First, you must understand that your memory is actually broken into three categories:

Of course, there are different types of memories as well, from episodic to autobiographical, spatial, semantic, and even procedural memory. And studies show that those each leverage a different part of the brain. But none of that is actually of any importance to us right now.

What you need to understand is that there’s no such thing as plain and simple “memory.” In fact, memory is an extremely complex thing, and one that neuroscientists, Alzheimer’s disease researchers, and psychologists still don’t completely understand. Every year, researchers are surprised to learn about a new area of the brain that is involved in a different type of memory. If anything, research shows that it’s not as simple as assuming one part of the brain is used in one type of memory.

Fortunately, we don’t actually need to understand the neuroscience behind memory to better recall information or improve brain function. If that was true, even I would probably be walking around saying that I have a lousy memory!

2. The difference between working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory

So, what are the differences between these three types of memory?

Well, first off, we have working memory. As the name suggests, working memory is only used while you are working with and processing information. Think of it as your brain’s scratch paper or buffer. When you begin reading a sentence, like this one, working memory helps you remember how the sentence started long enough to connect it to the end. See? You just used your working memory — and so did I while writing this very sentence. But, of course, this means that your working memory is very short — a few seconds.

Next, we have short-term memory — which is probably the most misunderstood memory type of all. Most would guess that short-term memory lasts for a few minutes or hours, but in reality, most research shows that short-term memory lasts between 15 and 30 seconds. In that way, it’s kind of like the buffer on your computer. When you learn something new, short-term memory holds it in your brain before the rest of the brain decides what to do with it — sort of. By the way, if you’ve ever heard that we can remember 7 + 2 objects (it’s actually 4 + 1) in our memory, that refers to the limits of short-term memory. 

Finally, we have long-term memory. Once again, there’s a lot of confusion here, most likely because of the name. While one minute may not seem like a long time, this is the domain of long-term memory. This category of memory is quite broad, covering everything from one minute to one century. Again, there are many different types of long-term memory, but suffice it to say that if it’s something stored permanently or semi-permanently, that’s your long-term memory at work.

Now that we understand this, let’s proceed and ask:

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3. Can you really improve your short-term memory? 

In a word, not really. Research shows that it’s pretty difficult to actually improve short-term memory. 

But before you get disappointed and close the page, don’t worry.

This doesn’t mean you can’t improve your memory overall—quite the opposite. You can easily improve your memory by as much as 10x in just a few short weeks. It’s just that unless you are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, severe cognitive decline, or some other form of brain damage, nearly any memory improvement you’ll experience will likely improve your long-term memory.

In any case, one of the primary reasons people wish to improve short-term memory as opposed to the other forms of memory is a misunderstanding of the breakdown. For my money, I think improving long-term memory is a far better investment than trying to improve short-term memory. After all, imagine remembering 80% of every book you read — a skill I teach my students in my SuperLearner course — for years to come. That’s a lot better than remembering where you placed your keys 30 seconds ago, isn’t it? 

Sure, you can do a few things to improve your short-term memory, but on the whole, you already know them all:

Get more sleep. Exercise. Meditate. Look into healthy diets high in natural fats and low in sugar. 

In truth, each of these things will improve your short-term memory because they’ll improve your overall brain health and brain function.

Already doing all of that? Great. Then let me start by explaining that improving your short-term memory is not a matter of training your memory itself. Sure, you can make a daily habit of remembering longer and longer strings of information, and that will probably improve short-term memory at least temporarily. But if you really want to see measurable improvement, you have to re-learn how to use your memory. And that’s a skill that humanity forgot with the advent of ink and buried with the advent of computers and Google.

4. The importance of visual memory 

Millenia ago, the Greeks valued short and long-term memory as the noblest of pursuits and skills. They remembered thousands and thousands of words. Entire stories and poems. Laws and sonnets. In fact, it was hundreds of years before classics like Homer’s The Odyssey or The Iliad were ever preserved in writing. This means that someone literally memorized these massive stories and passed them on for generations.

The Greeks didn’t do this with some magical root or herb, and they didn’t do it by overtraining their memories like muscles. They did it by becoming masters of mnemonics, or memory techniques.

Memory athletes like Ben Pridmore use these techniques to accomplish such feats as memorizing a deck of cards in only 27 seconds.

You’ve probably encountered mnemonic devices in the past. If you’ve used acronyms like songs to improve short-term memory or acronyms like PEMDAS, those are types of mnemonic devices. These are helpful but not nearly as effective as visual memory. In my article on how to get a photographic memory, I explained that our brains evolved to place a high emphasis on “life-and-death” information. They often say that smell and taste (which are related) are the most memorable senses. But why? 

First off, they are hard-wired into the reptilian brain and developed way before our other senses. That’s why smelling salts will wake someone up even when slapping their face doesn’t. But second, it’s an evolutionary advantage. Imagine two paleolithic women, one who can remember the taste and smell of a toxic berry that almost killed her last time she ate it, and one who can’t. Who survives and passes on her genes to you? The same is true of visual memory. Remembering what those berries looked like is definitely an evolutionary advantage. Sound, on the other hand, is not nearly as important in life-and-death situations. Predators rarely announce their arrival!

5. We are wired to remember locations 

Another thing that our brains are wired to remember is locations. This is because for millions of years our survival depended on the ability to remember where our tribe, our food, and our water supply were. A Neanderthal who couldn’t remember where the freshwater source or the edible fruit trees were didn’t stick around long enough to pass his genes along. 

This evolutionary hand-down is why you remember where the furniture was in every apartment you’ve ever lived in and why you can tell me where the soap and shampoo bottles are in your shower right now. Visual and spatial memory are extremely powerful, and they come as a built-in feature of the brain!

6. Re-learning how to utilize your memory 

Coming back from a long tangent, it’s important to understand that improving short-term memory is mostly about utilizing your brain the way it’s evolved to be used. It’s about setting things up in your short-term memory in a way that effectively and memorably funnels them into your long-term memory. But let’s face it: your brain wasn’t designed to memorize strings of numbers by repeating them over and over. It was designed to formulate and remember pictures and be able to spatially map them out with ease. So give it what it wants!

The cover of the best-selling book "Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer. This book talks about a lot of the techniques included in this article on how to improve your short term memory.

Moonwalking with Einstein tells the story of how Foer went from average joe to US memory champion in just one year.

This is why literally all of the world’s memory champions use visual memory. It’s why all of them use a technique called the Method of loci, or memory palaces. The basic idea here is to create images or symbols for anything you want to remember. Convert the number eight into a picture of a racetrack, for example. Then, store it in a specific location in a house or room you already know. From there, you just have to walk through your old house or office building and imagine finding the clues as you remember each item. This is probably where the term “a stroll down memory lane” originated.

At the most advanced levels, memory athletes have created chunking and compression techniques to make this easy for large amounts of information. They include the Major Method, which turns each number into a sound and formulates words from those sounds, creating a symbol for every 3-4 numbers instead of each one. Others have taken the memory palace to its logical extreme, walking through entire cities to memorize the landscape and assembling hundreds of buildings with tens of thousands of storage points for storing their memories.

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Final notes on how to improving short-term memory 

With these techniques, memory athletes can dramatically improve short-term memory by blurring the lines between what is short-term and what is long-term. If you’ve ever used the memory palace technique, you know that it can even be a very big challenge to remove your memories and make room for new ones. Every time I perform a feat like memorizing 50 random digits, my biggest challenge isn’t remembering the digits; it’s forgetting the ones from the last time I used that same memory palace. Pretty powerful.

So, this is good and bad news. The bad news is that you can’t really “improve” your short-term memory. Instead, you need to transform it into a more efficient funnel for your long-term memory. This takes a bit of work. You have to re-learn how you learn, and master a system for converting all new information, whether it’s Russian vocabulary, people’s names, or your credit card number, into detailed visual symbols. The next step, once you improve short-term memory, is to work on your long-term memory. This is where the memory palaces and other techniques of linking memories come into play. Fortunately, after reading this article, you’re already well on your way! Thanks for reading. If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to continue learning with me, make sure to check out my SuperLearner course right here on Udemy.