Short Term Memory

We are constantly being bombarded by an plethora of ephemeral sensations from moment to moment. By deciphering these overwhelming hints we’re able to make sense of our ‘real world’.

Having to store every minuscule detail of our lives being shoved through all our senses (current temperature, pain [or lack of], colors, smells, orientation, speed of movement,  pressure of air against my skin, and much much more) would not end well.

Fortunately, we can only store a limited amount of information in our short term memory and we have a gatekeeper, the hippocampus (in Ali’s World, he is a Roman gladiator named Hippopotamus Campus), [to attempt] to keep nonsense information passing through into our long term memory.

Here’s how things work:

Rules of the Short Term Memory Game

  • Short term memories don’t last forever

Your short term memories are rapidly decaying. You’re already forgotten 99% of the previous moment you were in. You’ve probably forgotten most of what I’ve said since you started reading this post.

The truth is, your short term memories are going to last anywhere from a couple of seconds to up to a minute (if you train really, really hard).

Basically you’ve got 10-15 seconds to find a way to store information you want before Roman gladiator Hippopotamus Campus slays your thoughts and throws them into the eternal abyss.

  • Short term memories can be preserved

Two ways you can keep your short term memories around longer than a couple of seconds are rehearsing and chunking.

Rehearsing: Just think about it. Literally. Rehearsing new information for the first time gives that memory another 10-20 seconds to linger around. When someone tells you their name, at least repeat it mentally. Psychologists are finding that what you vocalize, or even sub-vocalize, reinforces memories and keeps them around much longer.

Chunking: We do this one all the time. For illustration,  let’s make up a phone number. Let’s try 800-PIE-SURF or 800-743-7873. By combining a string of numbers into 3 chunks, we end up only use up 3/7 of our short term memory slots while being able to recall all 10 digits (beyond our normal short term memory capacity). Maintaining three chunks for a period of time is much easier than seven, let the whole ten string of ten digits.

You can either remember 800, 743, 7873 and prolong your memory for a few mere seconds. Or, if you’d like the memory to defeat Roman gladiator Hippopotamus Campus and land into your long term memory, you could create a visual episode in your mind. Try imagining a delicious slice of pie surfing on a giant phone with an 800 number, “800-PIE-SURF”.

  • Mental capacity of 7 plus or minus 2

George Miller, one of the founders of cognitive psychology, found that humans can remember 5-9 pieces of information at any given moment. I find Miller’s Law of reflecting all over our world. Our world filled with evidence that on average, we can only remember 7 pieces of information at once.

That must be why texas hold ’em requires 5 card poker hands to be made out of 7 available cards. Or in scrabble, we use up to 7 tiles to make words with.

Seven colors of the rainbow, (arguably) seven continents and seven seas. I suppose if there was an eight, it was either forgotten or chunked so that we could easily remember seven things again. It’s not that seven is magical in any way, rather a mere sign of the limit of our teeny mammalian brains to process and understand things before we quickly forget them.

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