Key Concepts
Learning, memory, brain

Introduction

If someone tells you to remember a phone number or address, it can feel like an easy task at first. You repeat the numbers to yourself, either aloud or in your mind. But after just a few seconds, you may find yourself starting to doubt your own memory. Was it 5-7 or 7-5? Our minds are always seeking new and useful information, and as a result, it will try to ‘throw away’ information that seems old or irrelevant, such as a random string of numbers or an address. However, there are ways of helping our minds retain information, and in this activity you will be exploring ways that we lose and keep memories.

This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.

Background

Short term or working memory is a way of describing most people’s abilities to store a small amount of information for a brief period of time, in a readily accessible form. Short term memory has a short duration (thought to be on the order of seconds or minutes) but is quickly and easily accessed. People don’t have to stop and think to remember something in short term memory, they can access it quickly and easily. There are many techniques for improving memory retention (capacity to store information over time). Such techniques include visualizing the information in a surprising way, or linking pieces of information together so that one reminds you of the other. In the case of visualizing information, this could be as simple as remembering that you parked your car on the 5th floor in the D section, by picturing 5 dogs sitting in your car! In addition, linking information could help you remember your grocery list. If you need to purchase cereal, milk, fruit, cheese and eggs, you could imagine the cereal in a bowl, with milk pouring over it and pieces of fruit on the bowl. Then imagine cracking an egg and it’s full of melted cheese! These may seem simple or even silly, but they are time (and scientist) tested methods for improving memory retention. In this activity you’ll test the memory of a few friends and family members, and learn a few tricks for improving memory!

Materials

  • 1 piece of paper
  • A pen or pencil
  • At least 4 volunteers
  • A quiet place to test your volunteers
  • A clock or timer

Preparation

  1. Use your pen and paper to recreate the table below:

Volunteer Name

Single Digit

1 minute

Single Digit

2 minute

Multiple Digit

1 minute

Multiple Digit

2 minute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Procedure

  1. Test each of your volunteers individually, following the steps below. Make sure they don’t hear each other’s tests!
  2. Start with Volunteer 1. Take them into the quiet space you’ve chosen for testing.
  3. Write Volunteer 1’s name in the first row of your table, in the column ‘Volunteer Name’.
  4. Tell Volunteer 1 that you’re going to be asking them to memorize 4 different sets of numbers. You will tell them the number sequence once, then wait a controlled amount of time before testing how well they remember the number sequence.
  5. When your volunteer is ready, read the 1 minute Single Digit Number Sequence (printed below) aloud to your volunteer. As soon as you finish reading the sequence, start your timer.

    1 minute Single Digit Number Sequence: “4, 9, 1, 7, 2, 2, 6, 5, 8, 3”

  6. Make sure to stay quiet so you don’t distract your volunteer. After 1 minute has gone by on your timer, ask your volunteer to repeat the sequence back to you. As they say the numbers aloud, write down the numbers as they say them in the ‘Single Digit 1 minute’ column.
  7. Tell your volunteer you’re going to read another set of numbers, and ask them to memorize and repeat them after a certain amount of time.
  8.  Read the Single Digit Number Sequence (printed below) aloud to your volunteer. As soon as you finish reading the sequence, start your timer.

    2 minute Single Digit Number Sequence: “5, 0, 2, 8, 8, 3, 7, 6, 9, 4”

  9. After 2 minutes have gone by on your timer, ask your volunteer to repeat the sequence back to you. As they say the numbers aloud, write down the numbers as they say them in the ‘Single Digit 2 minute’ column.
  10. Tell your volunteer you’re going to read a 3rd set of numbers, and ask them to memorize and repeat them after a certain amount of time.
  11. When your volunteer is ready, read the 1 minute Double Digit Number Sequence (printed below) aloud to your volunteer. As soon as you finish reading the sequence, start your timer.

    1 minute Double Digit Number Sequence: “49, 17, 22, 65, 83”

  12. After 1 minute has gone by on your timer, ask your volunteer to repeat the sequence back to you. As they say the numbers aloud, write down the numbers as they say them in the ‘Double Digit 1 minute’ column.
  13. Tell your volunteer you’re going to read a final set of numbers, and ask them to memorize and repeat them after a certain amount of time.
  14. When your volunteer is ready, read the 2 minute Double Digit Number Sequence (printed below) aloud to your volunteer. As soon as you finish reading the sequence, start your timer.

    2 minute Double Digit Number Sequence: “50, 28, 83, 76, 94”

  15. After 2 minutes has gone by on your timer, ask your volunteer to repeat the sequence back to you. As they say the numbers aloud, write down the numbers as they say them in the ‘Double Digit 2 minute’ column.
  16. Circle the mistakes your volunteer made in each column.
  17. Repeat steps 2-16 with your remaining volunteers.
  18. Add up the number of mistakes made in each column. Which column has the highest number of mistakes made? Which column has the lowest? Why do think that might be?

Extra: Try repeating the experiment, but instead of remaining quiet while your timer is going, ask the volunteer to sing a common song. Test what effect this has on their ability to repeat the number sequence.

Observations and Results

You may have noticed that the digits you read for the Single Digit and Double Digit number sequences were the same. However, for the Single Digit sequence you read 10 individual numbers, whereas for the Double Digit number sequence you read 5 double digit numbers. While it’s the same number sequence each time, you may have noticed that your volunteers found it easier to memorize the Double Digit sequence. Your volunteers were able to remember the number “49” as one number, whereas when you said it as “4, 9” they had to remember the numbers 4 and 9 as distinct numbers. To remember information such as number sequences, your brain uses its short term memory storage. Your short term memory has a limited amount of space to store information. As you fill it, there is less room to hold additional information. The number “49” takes up less ‘space’ in your memory than the numbers “4” and “9” do separately. This is a memory technique known as ‘chunking’, and it can help you memorize longer sequences of numbers (and letters!) by chunking them together.

You may have also noticed that more errors were made when the volunteer had to wait longer to repeat the number sequence back to you. Attention and time are extremely important to short term memory function. As more time goes by, it’s more difficult to control our attention. Even when we try to focus on a piece of information, such as a number sequence, retaining that information over longer periods of time becomes more difficult. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘recency effect’, where the more recently something was discussed, the easier it is to remember.

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Credits

Megan Arnett, PhD, Science Buddies

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Key Concepts
Learning, memory, brain
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