What is short-term memory?

Short-term memory is the type of memory you need to accomplish your immediate goals, explains Dr Patrick Lyden, a neurology expert. That may be working your way through tasks during the workday, remembering someone’s name, email or phone number, or recalling where you tossed your keys when you got home.

Where is it located in the brain?

When someone rattles off their phone number, you file it away in brain circuits that include the hippocampus (your memory centre) and the amygdala (your emotional hub). Depending on how important the short-term memory item may be (your address, someone you call all the time), it can be converted into long-term memory, says Dr Lyden.

How does short-term memory work?

Short-term memory isn’t just about being able to quickly recall new info; there are three phases. “You have to register the information, store the information and retrieve the information,” says Dr Lyden. Registering means that you’re paying attention in the first place. Storing the info means you’ve filed it away in your brain. Retrieval is the ability to access the memory again. Any of these steps can break down, he says.

Is your memory OK?

Many people assume they have a memory problem when the explanation is something else entirely, says Dr Lyden. Maybe you’re not paying attention because you’re gazing at your phone or texting, for example. The first step to figuring out if something is going on is to “pay closer attention,” he says. Repeat the new information three times to commit it to memory.

When it may be time to worry

If you can’t pass the “pay attention test” despite repeating the information, your next step, advises Dr Lyden, is to determine if your problem is storing new memories or retrieving them. If you’re having a problem remembering a new acquaintance’s name, ask them to give you three choices – like Carrie, Lauren or Janet. If your problem is storing new memories, you won’t be able to remember. But if your problem is retrieval, you’ll remember that her name is Janet once you hear the correct name.

Having trouble with retrieving a short-term memory isn’t as serious as being unable to store them. “The storage problem is a serious problem, and you should see a neurologist,” he says.


Blood flow is good for your brain – it keeps it young. “Exercising boosts blood flow to your brain. If you stay active, you’ll have a better memory,” says Dr Daniel G. Amen, author of Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss and Remember What Matters Most. Dr Lyden suggests daily exercise and it doesn’t have to be intense. “A short run daily is better than a long run one day a week,” he says.

Substance abuse

Dr Amen says marijuana is a toxin that impairs memory. “Marijuana lowers every area of the brain and ages it. On average, pot smokers have brains three years older than non-smokers,” he says. Alcohol abuse can also harm your memory.

Mental health conditions

People tend to miss their own depression. But if you’re suffering from depression, anxiety or chronic stress, get help or your memory can also pay the price. “These conditions may all hurt the brain,” says Dr Amen. Getting relief will not only improve your life and outlook but save your brain.

Lack of sleep

When considering short-term memory loss causes, poor sleep is a big one. “If you don’t sleep seven hours a night or more, you’ll be in trouble. Your brain cleans itself at night. When you don’t get enough, it’s like the trash crew didn’t come to clean up,” says Dr Amen.

Lyme disease

Lyme disease is transmitted through a tick bite, and causes early symptoms like fever, chills, headache and fatigue. Later on, some people also may notice short-term memory problems. Dr Amen points out this may include trouble with attention, focus and organisation.