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Have you ever thought “Goodness, I can’t remember what I watched on television last night. My short-term memory is shot!”? In my memory clinic, I often year people lament their short-term memory because they forgot to pick up milk at the supermarket or can’t remember what day they went to see the doctor. The good news is that these lapses are not a short-term memory problem and here’s why.
Your short-term memory is short: indeed, it lasts only a few seconds, thirty seconds at most. Short-term memory serves us well as we age and in my research, healthy adults in the 50 – 70 year age group often achieved better results that those in the 20 – 40 group. Maturity has its advantages!
The task of short-term memory is to gather all the information from your senses. Every moment you are bombarded with images you see, sounds you hear, ‘things’ you feel through touch, odours you can smell, taste sensations, and emotional reactions evoked by these. Most of these sensations vanish as quickly as they came; unless some of them (most people can store about seven items altogether, plus or minus two) are so important to you they move into your short-term memory.). To recall them later, though, the items need to be rehearsed in some way to proceed into the long-term memory. That whole process takes about seven seconds. Short-term memory is the gate-keeper to your memory – if you remembered everything that you saw, heard, tasted, touched, or smelt, your memory system would be overwhelmed and unable to function properly. It is the job of your STM to filter out unimportant information.
Left to its own devices, your memory doesn’t always remember exactly what you will want to recall later. Have you had the experience of hearing the name of a product or website address on the radio? You are sure you have it, but by the time you have found a pen and paper it has vanished into thin air. It is most frustrating, and a prime example of a short-term memory failure. So, how can it be improved?
The most important technique is to pay attention and focus on information you want to remember. No multi-tasking, please! It’s a bit like shining a spotlight on important information and rehearsing it before it vanishes. We often do this with telephone numbers – looking up a number and repeating it until we can either dial it or write it down. That’s exactly what we need to do with other information, too. Focus carefully on information that is important to you and your clever short-term memory will ‘dump’ the rest.
Dr. Allison Lamont is founder and memory consultant at the Christchurch Memory Clinic. Allison’s ground-breaking research into memory in older, healthy adults has excited interest in many parts of the world.