Think Fast!

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Time has a special meaning for mental processes. Understanding the tempo of thought can help you think better.

Short-Term Losses

Forgetting is part of our everyday experience, but we don’t often consider it until it derails us. As you may recall from an introductory psychology course, memory is divided into long-term memory, which has the potential to last a lifetime, and short-term memory, which degrades very quickly — on the order of seconds to a few minutes. If you ever find yourself standing in a room but not remembering why you went there, you’ve experienced losing a short-term memory.

Knowing short-term memory decays so quickly, you have some options. The easiest is to simply recall the memory again. This “resets the clock” on that short-term memory. If you’ve ever said an address or a phone number to yourself to keep from forgetting, this “rehearsal” buys you extra time. Rehearse the memory enough times, and over a long enough space of time, and chances are you’ll convert it to a long-term memory and can confidently count on recalling it without additional rehearsal.

Rehearsal is fine if you have the time, the energy, and the motivation to do it. Far easier is to use an external memory device like a notepad or a voice recorder. These one-and-done solutions free up your mind to focus on other things. I recommend having some form of note-taking device available at all times. Why? Because short-term memory decays so quickly that you could easily lose the memory before you dig up a pad and pen. We’re also good at fooling ourselves about our ability to remember. I can’t count the times I’ve had a good idea or remembered a task, then said to myself “I’ll remember that!” only to end up with that frustrating feeling just a few minutes later of knowing I had a good idea but not what it was.

Nine Items or Less in the Memory Lane

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Short-term memory is limited not only by how quickly it decays, but also by how little it can hold at any given time. Unlike long-term memory that seems nearly unlimited in scope, short-term memory has been traditionally sized at “seven plus-or-minus two ‘chunks'”. What constitutes a ‘chunk’ is a discussion for another time, but digits in a phone number or words in a poem might be considered ‘chunks.’ The “seven plus-or-minus two” rule is approximate. I’m sure we could identify people with more than nine and fewer than five available ‘slots,’ but it serves as a pretty good benchmark for the human average.

Because short-term memory is limited in scope, the brain often deals with overloaded short-term memory by dumping the oldest memory to make room for what’s new. Once again, when in a creative mode, when ideas are flying quickly through your head, it becomes even more urgent to catch and record them before they can be pushed out by the next concept.

You Scared it Out of Me

If rehearsal gives short-term memories an extra lease on life, then distraction slays them. This fact is really just an application of the seven plus-or-minus two rule for short-term memory. If you become distracted then by definition you are adding new items to short-term memory, and your previous memories are pushed closer to the edge of forgetting. Thus controlling distractions is also about controlling the use of your limited short-term memory.

So far we’ve talked about the timing of memory, but other parts of your mind are time-dependent as well. Many parts of our brain, especially the automatic systems that keep us alive, keep us upright, and coordinate our physical movement operate with lighting speed, and they must do so or we’d never cope with even simple activities like walking. It is a good thing we aren’t consciously aware of all the thinking that goes on at this level or we would never have the capacity to think of anything else.

On the other hand, our conscious mind, the part we’re familiar with, the part of us that reasons and imagines and justifies, works more slowly. The speed differential between conscious and unconscious thought can be used to good advantage. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the time-dependent interaction of conscious and unconscious processes in his popular book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking . Often we find ourselves in a situation and feel something isn’t right before we’ve had a chance to think it through. On further reflection we find reasons to doubt this first impression and may second-guess ourselves. Gladwell documents a slew of cases where fast-acting intuition (or the “blink reaction” as he terms it) turns out to be right, while slow, deliberate rationality fails. For our purposes, the point is not to compare the efficacy of ‘blink’ versus ‘slow’ judgement as much as to recognize that when you have second thoughts about an intuition, what is really happening is that two very distinct parts of your mind are giving distinct and incompatible results. Whether you go with your guts or think it through some more, you can use your knowledge of your brain’s timing to identify which parts of your psyche the thoughts are coming from.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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