How to Dramatically Improve Your Short Term Memory In No Time
As an instructor of one of the most popular memory and speed reading courses on the web, I’m very often asked how to improve short term memory. For those who are unaware, your memory is effectively broken up into 3 different types:
- Working Memory – The kind of memory that you use to formulate thoughts and ideas, where you can hold 7±3 items in your mind for up to 30 seconds or so. (I’ll likely write another article soon on how to improve working memory)
- Short Term Memory – The kind of memory that helps you remember where you put your keys yesterday, what you ate for lunch on Monday, and so on.
- Long Term Memory – The kind of memory that serves up embarrassing childhood stories or helps you remember what channel CNN is.
Perhaps one of the main reasons people wish to improve short term memory as opposed to the other forms of memory is a misunderstanding of the breakdown. In fact, for my money, I think improving long term memory is a far better investment – after all, imagine remembering 80% of every book you read – a skill I teach my students in my course.
Still, there are a lot of perks and benefits to improving short term memory; from remembering new people’s names at cocktail parties to cram study sessions and even remembering where you placed your keys. More importantly, nothing can make it into long term memory without first placing it in short term memory, and so you can thing of improving short term memory as sort of expanding the funnel by which information gets into your brain and stays there.
Let me start, then, by explaining that improving your short term memory is actually not so much 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 in the long run. However, if you really want to see dramatic improvements, you need to re-learn how to use your memory – a skill that humanity forgot with the advent of ink, and buried with the advent of computers and Google.
Thousands of years ago, the Greeks valued short and long term memory as the noblest of pursuits and skills. They remembered thousands upon thousands of words, entire stories and poems, laws and sonnets. In fact, it was hundreds of years before such classics as Homer’s The Odyssey or The Illyad were ever committed to writing. This means that someone memorized these massive stories, and passed them on for generations.
The Greeks didn’t do this with some magical herb or root, and they didn’t do it solely by training their memories like you’d train your muscles. They did it because they were masters of mnemonics, or memory techniques.
You’ve probably encountered mnemonic devices in the past, if you’ve used acronyms like PEMDAS or songs to improve short term memory. These are helpful, but not nearly as effective as visual memory. In my course, I explain that our brains are evolved to place a high emphasis on more “life-and-death” information. They often say that smell and taste (which are related senses) are the most memorable of senses – and this is likely true. But why? Well, it’s a simple evolutionary advantage. Imagine two paleolithic men, one who can remember the smell and taste of a poisonous berry that almost killed him last time he ate it, and one who cannot. Who survives and passes on his genes to you? The same is true of visual memory – remembering what those berries looked like is definitely an evolutionary advantage. However, sound is not nearly as important in life-and-death situations.
Another thing that our brains are wired to remember is locations. This is because for millions of years, our survival depended on our ability to remember where our tribe was (for safety and shelter) and where our food and water supply was. A neanderthal who can’t remember geographically where the fresh water source or the non-poisonous berry tree were isn’t going to stick around long enough to pass his genes along. This simple evolutionary hand-down is why you remember where the furniture was in every single apartment you’ve ever lived in, and why you can probably tell me how many soap and shampoo bottles are in your shower (and where) right now. Visual and spacial memory are really powerful, and they come as part of the standard software of your brain!
And so, coming back from a long tangent, it’s important to understand that improving short term memory is more about utilizing your brain the way it’s designed to be used than anything. 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.
This is why literally all of the world’s top ranking memory athletes at the World Memory Championships use visual memory, and why all of them use a technique called the Loci method, or memory palaces. The basic idea here is that you create images or symbols for anything you want to remember – converting 8 into a picture of a racetrack, for example – and store it in an imaginary house in one of your storage points. 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 compression techniques (such as the Major Method, which turns earn number into a sound and formulating words from those sounds, thereby creating a symbol for every 3-4 numbers instead of each one) and have taken the memory palace to it’s logical extreme, walking through entire cities to memorize the landscape, and assembling hundreds of buildings with tens of thousands of loci (or storage points) for storing their memories. You can read more about this in Joshua Foer’s popular book, Moonwalking with Einstein, if you’re curious, or learn from one of the experts in any of Anthony Metivier’s courses. (Anthony has both interviewed me and was one of our first guests on the Becoming SuperHuman podcast, too, so if you want to hear some great – and free- content about his Magnetic Memory Method, you should check out the Podcasts section)
Using these techniques, memory athletes are able to 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 actually be a very big challenge to remove your memories and make room for new ones. I personally still have a bookshelf full of visual reminders (email my business partner, post a poll on Facebook, write an article on improving short term memory) from over 3 months ago, which, if I don’t manually clear it out, will probably remain there for years.
So, this is good and bad news. The bad news is that in order to improve short term memory, you need to make some investment. You need to re-learn how you learn, and learn the 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. But that, of course, is another topic for another day.