The Long and the Short of Memory

Originally published on

The Long and the Short of Memory

As we age, we forget. Memories fade, eventually failing. How, then, can we better remember? To answer, let’s look at the three areas of memory: long-term, short-term and active working.

Long-term memory is the stuff that our lives are made of, the key to recollecting and retaining: language, math, dates, names, Social Security numbers, passwords and so on. Yet long-term memory does not mean information is safe. For example, useless information like a childhood street address stays floating in the long-term memory pool while vital information like your PIN number sinks to the bottom.

This is because your brain is a sponge. When you are young, it is fresh and absorbent. And, as you age, it gets old and hard. You know that ancient sponge that you only use to clean “non-eating” surfaces? That is your brain on age. Any questions?

Short-term memory is where new information quickly dies. Your senses are connected to this place by a direct route. When you taste, see, smell, hear or feel and then you do nothing with the sensory input, you will quickly forget it. By noting the sensation verbally (“I taste cherries in this Syrah”) or in writing (“555-1234”) you’ve thrown a buoy to the information in the short-term memory whirlpool.

The active working memory is the lifeboat on the perilous waters of short-term memory and the safer-but-still-not-secure long-term memory. When you want to remember information, you need to send it through different parts of your brain. If you write something down that you heard, you are reinforcing the information by listening and writing.

Have you looked at your watch and then seconds later forgotten the time? However, when you tell someone the time, you don’t forget. Merely saying the information is a simple, effective form of active-working memory reinforcement.

As youngsters flailing about in life’s kiddie pool, we are encouraged to repeat, reuse and regurgitate information for our teachers, parents and proud grandparents. Good, and not lazy, teachers make students give presentations and teach portions of a lesson because good teachers know that actively processing information is the best way to learn; the best way to learn something is to teach it. And, in defense of teachers who make students teach, it is actually a lot more work to prepare and assess student-led activities than to give a lecture and then give a test.

Yet, as adults treading water in the real world, we take in Power Point presentations and meeting announcements without any chance to reinforce, or remember, the information. Maybe the question these days should be, “Did you use your active-working memory to reinforce and retain the memo?” and not “Did you get the memo?”

Try talking about a news story you read with a co-worker over lunch. When that documentary you’re watching goes to commercial, turn to your spouse, pet or shoes and say, “Interesting that Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to appear on film.” In a meeting, instead of passively listening, write down your duties and rephrase them back to your boss to make them sink in.

Process that information. Reinforce it. Retain it. You, and your memory, will be glad you kept it afloat.

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