The gap between short and long term memory

Not all memories are created equal

I am not alone in my desire to better understand what is happening with my memory. After I posted my first article on memory improvement, I received messages and emails from other people who are wondering about similar gaps and lapses.

One 38-year-old man named Ash sent me a message about a recent concert he attended. 

“Saw a cover band last night and they played many songs which I know how to play myself, but this morning I could barely recall two songs they played.” He continued with what is now a familiar lament: “Moments like this become more frequent.”

His message illustrates the difference between short-term and long-term memory.

According to, short-term memory is “closely related to ‘working’ memory…[it] is the very short time that you keep something in mind before either dismissing it or transferring it to long term memory.”

He probably didn’t remember the songs because his brain saw no need to transfer the set-list to his long-term memory where the memory of how to play those songs already exists.

As I read more about memory, I am convinced of two things:

  1. Short-term memory is limited. You can only hold on to so much new information.
  2. If there is something you want to convert to your long-term storage you need to work at it.

I will explore the difference between short-term and long-term memory in another blog, but the primary focus of this post is how to begin my memory improvement while in the midst of memory research. 

If you want to bench press 300lbs, you need to start doing push-ups

I’m a big believer in learning by doing. If I want to improve my bench press to 300lbs, there is no point spending all my time reading about strength training.

I need to engage in strength training.

My approach to memory training is similar. I’ve signed up for newsletters. I’m reading books. I am talking to people about their memories. I’m also trying things that I hope will lead to a solid memory foundation.

Check this out:

Improvement_what comes up when you type "How to improve" in to GOOGLE

That’s an image from a search I began last week. I cleared my browser before searching so the result wouldn’t be influenced by past searches.

These are the type of results I expected. The headlines make big promises:

Improve your memory in two minutes with this video...7 techniques to improve your memory...36 proven ways…3 simple steps to boost your memory...

There are pages and pages and pages of this type of result. 

There is also a neat box featuring a weightlifting brain.

Improvement_Lifestyle and memory are linked_7 lifestyle factors to consider in relation to your memory

Where to begin

There is a lot of information. Some of it probably pretty good. Some of it probably not so good.

I am working on items 3-5 on that list. I’ve left off 1 and 2 because I already eat pretty well and I regularly exercise. These factors have been present in my life for some time and I’m still noticing the gaps in my memory, so I am trying something new and different.

Number three: multi-tasking. This is challenging. I have been conditioned to try to do more. I now possess the tools to theoretically do more. I’m making a concerted and deliberate effort to single-task. If I am working, I am working on one thing at a time until completion or until a pre-determined time has elapsed.

Number four: sleep. I work in breakfast radio. My alarm goes off every morning at 3:45am. I have kept a journal each morning for the last five months about how I feel. Each day I track my physical, mental and emotional well-being. It’s not much. It’s a paragraph or two about my current status. Re-reading some of the entries, I feel rested and refreshed on anything between 6.5 and 7.5 hours of sleep. Anything less and I’m fatigued. Anything more (and this interests me), and I’m groggy, cranky and sluggish. Identifying the sleep sweet spot has been fascinating.


Improvement_Logic Puzzles to help improve brain function generally and memory specifically

Number five: brain games. I’ve started playing SCRABBLE again and I’ve started doing logic puzzles each day. When I started playing SCRABBLE (I had not played in several years), I discovered a gap in my memory. I read a book called Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis. One of the things he wrote about, and any serious SCRABBLE player knows, is the importance of the approved two and three letter words.  Twelve years ago I memorized the two letter list and I had a deep knowledge of the three letter list. I played SCRABBLE weekly at the time and that knowledge came in handy.

I must have left those lists in my short-term memory, because when I reached in to the recesses of my mind while playing a game recently, I could only remember the basic English language words of those lengths (of, the, ate, at, etc…) That is the usage of etc…as etc is not an approved three-letter word.  

My SCRABBLE is rusty. My performance has also dropped off for another reason. I am playing without dictionary, phone or other word support. I’m using the games to challenge my memory. I only play words I know, understand and most importantly, remember.

Jay Mueller

Jay Mueller is a journalist and radio producer based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter @bad_producer. Send him an email

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