Memory science: can you extend your short-term memory?

As you read this article, you store the words at the beginning of each sentence in your short-term memory while you work your way through to the end, enabling you to understand the text.

Short-term memory acts somewhat like a gatekeeper between incoming sensory information and long-term storage. You are constantly bombarded by information, and the incoming traces from your sensory receptors last for just fractions of a second before they are lost. You don’t have time to process all of it; so short-term memory allows you to pass small amounts of important information in a temporary loop while your brain decides what to do with it.

Short-term memory has two major limitations; the first is that you can only store a small amount of information, and the second is that the memory decays over time. If you pay attention, your short-term memory can hold around four chunks of new information for between ten and 20 seconds, but if you are distracted, you will rapidly forget it all. Rehearsing the information inside your head effectively resets the timer and restarts the memory loop, allowing you to extend this time. A part of the brain called the hippocampus then decides which bits are important enough to be committed to longer-term storage, and the others are quickly forgotten.

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Making memories: find out how incoming visual information becomes memory


You can hold four items of information in your memory for around ten seconds without trying, but memorising a sheet of 20 words can prove challenging. Your short-term memory has its imitations, but you can improve it with a few simple tricks. Instead of overloading your memory by trying to memorise them one by one, divide the images into linked chunks; for example, office objects or things that fly. This helps by tapping into your long-term memory, which mainly stores linked concepts, and is triggered by cues and associations.

Short-term memory tends to be encoded verbally, and you might find yourself repeating the names of the items in the pictures inside your head in order to help with recall, but you can improve still further if you take advantage of visual encoding. By creating a scene inside your head and visiting each item in turn, you start to remember the words more easily.

Our brains are capable of incredible feats of memory, one man memorised the order of 59 packs of cards.

Top 5 Facts: Memory

Autistic Skills

Individuals with autism often have skills such as fantastic mathematical ability. Some individuals such as Stephen Williams can draw entire landscapes from memory.

Sleep Helps

Sleeps is important to memory. Although scientists don’t know exactly how it affects the brain, it has been seen that sleep aids storage and retrieval of long-term memories.


Our memory doesn’t decrease very much with age. The memory loss we see in older people is generally because we tend to exercise our brains less as we age.


The more you have to try to work out a problem, the more likely you are to recall it. Initially your brain has to work harder, making stronger links between the active neurons.

False memories

People can ‘remember’ events that haven’t happened. Often if they’re led to believe something, their brain will then gather any relevant info to form a false memory.

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Plus, take a look at:

Do goldfish have a 3-second memory?

What is the brain’s memory capacity in gigabytes?

What is a memory?