Short-term memory dominates all tasks—in cooking, for instance: I put the water to boil in a pot on the stove and remember that the water will boil while I chop the onions. I will put the sauté pan on the stove to heat up the oil for the onions, and I will then put the onions, which I will remember I have chopped, into the oil, which I remember I have heated for the onions. I will then add tomatoes. While the onions and tomatoes cook, I will put pasta in the water, which I remember I have boiled. I will know that in ten minutes I will put the cooked pasta into the tomato and onion stir, and thus have a simple tomato pasta meal.
If short-term memory is damaged as mine was, it works more like this: I put the water on to boil. I heat up the oil in the sauté pan. I chop the onions and then wonder for what it was that I chopped the onions. What might it be? I wash my hands, because I might as well—my hands are covered in onion juice, and my eyes are tearing. I return to the stove, where the oil is now scorching hot. I wonder what on earth it was I was cooking, why the sauté pan was left this way. I turn off the heat under the oil. I sigh and go upstairs. I forget everything I just did like a trail of dust in wind. Two hours later, after a nap, I return to the kitchen to a pile of chopped onions on the chopping block. The pan is cool but scorched. And I again wonder why. But mostly, my eyes turn to an empty stockpot on the stove, the burner turned on high. There is nothing in the stockpot, not even water. This happened over and over again in the months following my stroke. So I stopped cooking for a year.
Short-term memory is like an administrative assistant for the brain, keeping information on hand and organizing tasks—it will figuratively jot down a number, a name, an address, your appointments, or anything else for as long as you need to complete your transaction. It stores information on a temporary basis, on Post-it notes, before deciding whether or not to discard the memory/Post-it or move it into a file cabinet for long-term memory storage. Everything in long-term memory finds its way there through short-term memory, from the PIN for your ATM card to the words to the “Happy Birthday” song to the weather on your wedding day. In fact, you are exercising short-term memory now, by keeping track of what you read at the beginning of this sentence so that you can make sense of it at the end.
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