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squirbel's avatar

Any ideas why my long-term memory is better than my short-term memory?

Asked by squirbel (4277points) March 13th, 2008 long term memory can be equated to that of an elephant, but my 30sec-5min memory is very, very questionable.

Any starting points with which I can do a little research on why this might be?

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16 Answers

zolmie's avatar

lack of sleep, poor diet and drugs always affect short term memory…. maybe that’s why?

Riser's avatar

We all have a little bit of ADD, certain things can trigger this. Where do you find the short term memory loss most prevalent? i.e. work, home, play

squirbel's avatar

lack of sleep [ • ]
poor diet [ • ]
drugs [ ]

I think it’s equal in all areas [work, play, home]. I’m not a routine person – I’m one of those who finds routine the killer of all that is enjoyable in life. For instance, when I do things like getting ready in the morning, I’ll remind myself to say, fill the cat’s bowl. I keep doing what I’m doing, and it slips my mind. Only when I am about to walk out the door does my mental checklist sound an alarm.

Same thing if I am browsing the internet. But I can blame that on so-called multitasking.

hearkat's avatar

I don’t have any research to support me, but my personal observations support that we really do learn best through repetition, so the memory of distant events have been reinforced by having been brought back to mind time-and-time again. Consider this… most of your long-term memories are of significant events that have photographs to go with them, or stories to tell, they are not typically of mundane occurrences. Like I said, that’s just my theory.

squirbel's avatar

Yeah you’re right. But the weirdest thing about me is that I don’t only commit important things to memory, but even the most unimportant. I can remember almost anything I’ve read, things I’ve seen, the clothes people have worn [if i’m around you long enough I can wager what you’ll come to work wearing], stupid little facts and trivia…

But recite a phone number to me [while talking on the phone and I don’t have a pen], and I’m pretty sure I will have forgotten the area code by the time I hang up with you and I’m ready to type it in.

cheebdragon's avatar

Drug use…....

squirbel's avatar

I never used any drugs, thanks.

SC's avatar

Great question squirbel, and glad to see peoples’ responses so far are generally on the right track.

First off, a clarification on a common misconception: memory for the time period between 30sec and 5min is actually Long-Term Memory (LTM), not Short-Term Memory (STM) as people usually think. There are certainly different aspects of LTM, hence the difference between a memory for something 5 minutes ago and something 5 years ago, but those are still LTM all the same.

STM, on the other hand, involves visual and auditory information for very brief time periods (in this case under 30 seconds, but 30 seconds is not necessarily a hard barrier between STM and LTM)—essentially, information is held in STM until it can be processed into LTM or discarded because it is deemed unimportant. For these reasons, modern memory literature usually foregoes the term STM and instead calls it Working Memory (WM).

Working memory has three main components: the visuospatial sketchpad, the phonological loop, and the central executive. The visuospatial sketchpad is the aspect of WM focused on visual and spatial information. You use this part of WM, for example, to conjure images and mentally manipulate objects. The phonological loop, on the other hand, is focused on auditory information. Lastly, the central executive serves multiple high-level roles, including unifying information from the other two sections together and helping determine whether information should be discarded or processed into LTM.

Now how does all this apply in the practical world? When you’re trying to remember a phone number, you’re holding it in the phonological loop. You repeat the phone number over and over to yourself until you get the chance to dial it on the phone. The average individual can hold 7 +/- 2 chunks of information in the phonological loop at once. (7 +/-2 means between 5 and 9.) This is actually one of the reasons phone numbers all around the world are very rarely longer than 6 or 7 digits. One digit doesn’t necessarily represent one chunk, however; a chunk is a small meaningful unit of information. Familiar area codes, for example, would usually count as one chunk even though they’re three digits. Likewise, remembering 383–1715 becomes seven chunks if you speak it to yourself as 7 digits, but five chunks if you say the last part as “seventeen fifteen”. As soon as you stop repeating the phone number to yourself, or once you get distracted and focus on something else, you’ll most likely lose whatever you had in the phonological loop (unless you decide to process it into LTM).

Reminding yourself to fill the cat bowl in the morning, but then forgetting, is not a problem with WM; instead, it results from not forming a robust encoding into LTM. And the truth is, this is a pretty efficient “error” for your mind: it won’t be particularly important in 20 years to remember that time you filled the cat bowl! In a sense, your central executive has already helped you deem this information as unimportant, and therefore marked it to be discarded. (This is a HUGE oversimplification, but let’s leave it at that for now.)

So is all for naught? Not at all. There are lots of strategies that can help memory with specific types of information. As you say, right before you walk out the door, an alarm bell sounds in your mind. Great! You’ve actually developed a strategy akin to a “mental checklist” that triggers every time you head for the door, and this checklist “reminds” you to feed the cat. If the “alarm bell” doesn’t go off every day, you can strengthen it, for example, by mentally imagining your cat hanging by its feet from your door handle. Sit for a minute and vividly imagine this very weird image: your cat, hanging from the door handle, by its feet. Why would a cat do that, it’s so weird? They wouldn’t, but now you have a very distinctive image associating your cat with the door handle. You’re now much more likely to think about your cat every time you reach for the door handle, and thus more likely to get your “alarm bell.”

There’s so much I’ve left out, but I think I’d better quit before this becomes a full-blown essay. I’m happy to answer any specific questions you’ve got. And since you’re probably wondering, my undergraduate and graduate degrees were in psychology, specifically focused on human memory and the ways in which we can screw up and “remember” things that never happened.

squirbel's avatar

Feel free to PM me with the rest, this was a great read – thanks!

SC's avatar

“the rest” could go on forever! but if you have specific questions or other problems that could use a little strategic intervention, tell on.

webmasterwilliam's avatar

SC – That was an awesome summary.

Here is a memory question that you seem qualified to answer. If I glance at something, and my brain misinterpreted the vision, does the misinterpreted vision get stored in memory, or do the components of the vision get stored, so later recollection may correctly interpret the vision?

For example, sometimes when you’re driving fatigued, you tend to see things ahead of you that are not really there. I remember once driving very very tired, I could swear I saw a dragster making a u-turn on the freeway ahead of me. As I got closer, it was in fact a train with its revolving headlights near a turn in the road. That was a very uncommon sight, so my fatigued brain didn’t have a previous pattern to reference, and I guess somehow the dragster image was the closest memory I had for reference.

So, if I had not been able to establish that it was in fact a train, if I was regressed under hypnosis, would I still claim that a dragster was performing a u-turn in the road, or would I be able to correctly reconstruct the image and properly interpret it as a train?

Judi's avatar

It seems to me that we give ourselves more creative license with our long term memory than with our short term memory.

CherryRed's avatar

Do you take drugs?

squirbel's avatar


Not even for headaches – and I only swallow about 6 aleve per year – every now and again my cramps are unforgiving.

El_Cadejo's avatar

i love how many people failed to read any other responses and keep asking/saying its due to drug use….

6rant6's avatar

Didn’t you ask that before?

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