The Beginner’s Guide To Improving Short-Term Memory

Improving Short-Term Memory

It's a safe bet that you have heard about short-term memory (a.k.a. working memory).

But have you ever considered it a potential source of problems with knowledge acquisition?

Personally, it took me a long time to see it that way. We all know and have heard about not multitasking and about avoiding distractions when we try to do something productive.

But as it turns out these are merely a part of the bigger picture. But first thing is first - capacity of working memory is often described using Miller's number. Basically, it means that you can memorize 7 (give or take 2) bits of information

What's more the duration of short-term memory seems to be anything from 20 seconds up to 40-50 minutes, depending on the kind of information and the way of encoding?

Let's try to imagine a process of memorization in some picturesque way.

A funnel might be the capacity of our working memory, while donuts are bits of information we want to absorb. Let's say that the information is stored when a donut passes through the neck of the funnel.

So what might go wrong?

What narrows the neck of the donut funnel?

In other words - what decreases the capacity of working memory? Well-known culprits are:

Lack of sleep

We all have met some guy (once or twice) who say "I swear man, I can pull a couple of all-nighters without any problem" But then you look at him and it turns out that he's having a feverish conversation with a chair.

Depending on the study, a week of sleeping 4-5 hours per night seems to be an equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1%. In the meantime, your brain burns through the sugar stored in your body making you crave all the sugary goodies.

Did I mention that the first parts of the brain which fall victim to sleep deprivation are the ones responsible for higher order thinking? Because who really needs abstract thinking when you barely stand on your feet!

Remedy: try to get at least seven hours of sleep per night

Lack of exercise

Shortly - many studies have proved that exercise stimulates new brain cell growth, increases connections between cells, and improves attention span.

Remedy: run fatty, run!

Improper nutrition

Your brain is a powerful and formidable machine which needs its fuel to function properly. And let's be honest - you know that McDonald won't cut it.

Remedy: in order to keep your brain well-oiled and ensure the formation of new brain cells feed your brain with proteins, Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B, folate, zinc and drink much water.


Stress triggers the Flight-or-Fight response. As a result, your body releases hormones like adrenalin or cortisol.

You know the feeling  - your heart rate increases, your hands get all sweaty, you feel the surge of anxiety mixed with energy. And the thing is that, of course, such a reaction is completely natural. The problem appears when you face chronic stress.

As a result, you may fall victim to obesity, depression, ulcers, sexual dysfunction.

Remedy: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Remember to do something to unwind every day. Get a massage, play with your kids, feed the pigeons - whatever floats your boat.


Improving Short-Term Memory

In today's world, it's considered normal to multitask at work or at home. Many people take great pride in doing many things at the same time, or in switching from one task to another. It saddens me greatly.

Cognitive costs of such a behavior are really huge. That's not a big deal when you don't work on anything productive at the moment. But if you really want to be productive and achieve some goal, you should learn how to focus on just one thing in any given moment.

Such an approach helps to tune out all the distractions and get the most out of your time. And don't be one of those people who say "BS, I know how to multitask productively". You can't.

Remedy: turn off your mobile-phone! Buy ear-plugs (this is my method) and find some quiet place to work on your project(s).

How to widen the neck of the donut funnel?

Trying to stuff 20 or 50 donuts through the narrow neck of the funnel would be plain crazy. Logic tells us that we should do something to widen the neck of the funnel.

So how can we do it?

Well, there are temporary solutions like medication and electrical brain stimulations but I guess they are a bit risky. More permanent solutions cover two things:


Let me quote you results from one of the latest studies concerning working memory (it can be found here):

Crystallized intelligence (Gc) is thought to reflect skills acquired through knowledge and experience and is related to verbal ability, language development1, and academic success. [...] While previous studies have indicated that gains in intelligence are due to improvements in test-taking skills, this study demonstrates that it is possible to improve crystallized skills through working memory training.

Such a training concentrates mainly on mnemonics. It is important to know that memory uses them to trigger various physiological responses.

Depending on the techniques you use, mnemonics might include tastes, touch, emotions (fear, love, anxiety, pleasure), images, sounds, etc. All together they help you to remember better.

What's more, since all the images created with help of mnemonics are placed in different locations, it's much easier to "widen" the neck of our donut funnel and increase the amount of information you acquire.


improper nutrition

The second method which can help us with widening the neck of the donut funnel is called "chunking". The essence of this method is to break up strings of information into units, or chunks if you will. It simplifies such a string and makes it easier to memorize.



It seems impossible to memorize it quickly. But let's try to slice this string into smaller 3-digit strings.

424 862 365 935 636 235 861 

Now let's imagine that these numbers express how far you were able to throw a rotten herring. You started with a decent throw of 424 m then it got better. And so on.

If you are a sports fan you might try to use 4-digit chunks and treat them as the time needed to run a 400 m. Be creative and come with some other way of breaking up this string!


The main takeaway is that you can improve your working memory by either unburdening it or by training it. As always - it's not easy and takes dedication. But once you take the first step in the right direction it gets only better.

Think ahead and imagine how much you can change and achieve in your life if you only improve your memory. And don't put it off. Choose the first strategy which you want to implement and start using it!.

I'll leave with a great talk about working memory. Enjoy!

How Pretending to Be an Assassin Can Help You Remember Poisons in Food Better

remember poisons in food better

Wouldn't it be great to be an actual assassin? 

Not to mutilate anyone, of course, but to have his confidence, strength, KNOWLEDGE... (and it's sure as hell more interesting than being "Jeff, an IT guy.")

And we all know that no assassin would be complete without secret knowledge of poisons. With knowledge like that - who would ever tread on you?

But what does it have to do with learning?! I rush to explain.

Usefulness In Learning

There are many principles which help us to understand how to memorize more effectively.
But there is one which has a key function in our lives.


Your brain discards most of the information you come into contact with.
It is useless. Why would you remember some date or a name of an obscure plant?

SURVIVAL - that's what important.

And needless to say, your profession is indispensable to your survival. Cooks remember recipes better than most non-cooks. Programmers have a better memory of code than people who simply dabble in coding.

Sure, there are factors which come into play:

And the list goes on... But let's concentrate on USEFULNESS.

Who Would You Like To Be?

I know that you have your profession. This is what you're great at and you stick to it - fully understandable. But what if you could create a set of characters to improve your life (and your learning curve)? Just like in role-playing games (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons).

You could be anyone you want, even if just for a day!

The Power Of Belief

the power of belief

But does pretending to be someone you're not make some knowledge useful? Yes, it does. It does if you choose to believe that you can be that person. Our brain is the most magnificent thing in the whole universe. And it has a truly breath-taking quality.

It can't tell fiction from reality. Just look at what power of belief can do to you:

  • Memory Implantation - Does the thing you remember really happened?
  • Stress - very often the biochemical reactions of our body depend on our perception of this situation
  • The Placebo Effect
  • Multiples Personalities Disorders - where one of the personalities is allergic to some specific food while others are not
  • Mental training in sports

So are you ready to become an assassin?!

Remember poisons in food better

I've prepared a list of 5 popular food products which contain various poisons. Of course, such products would be lethal only in extreme situations (and large doses) so take it with a grain of salt!

cherries - contain cyanogenic glycosides

Cherry (Prunus cerasus), as well as other Prunus species such as peach (Prunus persica), plum (Prunus domestica), almond (Prunus dulcis), and apricot (Prunus armeniaca). Leaves and seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides. (Wiki)

"When the seeds of cherries are crushed, chewed, or even slightly injured, they produce prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide). Next time you are eating cherries, remember not to suck on or chew the pip" (

apples - their seeds contain cyanide

"Apple seeds are very often eaten accidentally but you would need to chew and consume a fairly high number to get sick.

There are not enough seeds in one apple to kill, but it is absolutely possible to eat enough to die. I recommend avoiding apple eating competitions!" (

tuna - contains high levels of mercury and frequent source of salmonella poisoning

marlin - contains high levels of mercury

"Most people are unaware that marlin has been documented to accumulate harmful levels of mercury.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health guidelines for fish consumption indicate that any fish with a mercury level greater than 1.5 parts per million (ppm) should not be consumed in any amount.

Marlin, especially large specimens, have been found to contain mercury levels as high as 15 ppm, or 10 times the EPA limit." (Source:

potatoes - contain poisonous glycoalkaloids

Potatoes contain toxic compounds known as glycoalkaloids, of which the most prevalent are solanine and chaconine. Solanine is also found in other members of the Solanaceae plant family, which includes Atropa belladonna ("deadly nightshade") and Hyoscyamus niger ("henbane") (see entries below). The concentration of glycoalkaloid in wild potatoes suffices to produce toxic effects in humans. (Wiki)

"Potatoes (like tomatoes) contain poison in the stems and leaves – and even in the potato itself if left to turn green (the green is due to a high concentration of the glycoalkaloid poison).

Potato poisoning is rare, but it does happen from time to time. Death normally comes after a period of weakness and confusion, followed by a coma.

The majority of cases of death by potato in the last fifty years in the USA have been the result of eating green potatoes or drinking potato-leaf tea". (

Prepare "The Action Plan" - A Story That Is

We also tend to remember stories better than facts. 

That's why, to remember these poisons better, we can come up with some interesting story.

Let's say that you have an imaginary enemy called Bob. And, to put it gently, you're not the biggest fan of his. Why not invite him for a fancy dinner?

Compose the aforementioned products into the meal which Bob won't ever forget. Let it be a reminder to him that nobody messes with the assassin!


The huge takeaway from this article is that our brain creates its own reality. If you believe it - it's true.

So try to be creative - come up with your secret alter egos which can help you to memorize information better from the fields of your interest. Fake it until you make it.

And remember to put your knowledge to good use! I guess to balance this article, next time I should write about being a druid and healing...!

What other poisonous food ingredients do you know?