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!
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.
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 multi-task 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):
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.
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!