Steps for Improving Your Working Memory During Stressful Situations


Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
Retired Fire Chief and Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters

It probably comes as no surprise that we have a limited capacity to remember and recall things. This is true of both short-term (or working) memory and long-term memory. This article addresses some of the vulnerabilities of working memory and how you might overcome them.

Capacity: The capacity of working memory is far smaller than most of us would like to believe. The proof of this first came into prominence in the 1950s when Princeton psychologist George Miller discovered the average person can take in, process, comprehend and recall about seven (give or take two) pieces of unrelated information. Miller’s research has been robustly confirmed with additional studies conducted worldwide. Subsequent studies revealed that by adding stressors into the environment, the average of seven pieces of information can be reduced to five.

Five to seven pieces of unrelated information is the limit of working memory. It is no coincidence that span of control is recommended to be in the five to seven range. That number was not randomly selected. Rather, it was based research that started with Miller and continues today.

Forgetfulness: It’s a cruel fact, but when your working memory begins to get overloaded or overwhelmed, it begins to forget things. Unfortunately, unlike your computer, your brain is not equipped with a convenient delete key you can depress to forget something. The delete function is present, nonetheless. You just are not in conscious control of it. What your brain chooses to forget is determined at a level you cannot control.

Sadly, your brain isn’t very good at prioritizing the short-term information storage and retrieval based on what you may, at the moment, think is important. The process for what moves on to long-term storage (termed consolidation) and what is not yet completely understood. But it appears that past experiences and emotions play a big role in what is stored and what is lost. You need to know that some of the most important information (as you perceive it, anyhow) may be shed by the brain and, once shed, is lost from memory. This can include incident information critical to survival.

Fixing the Problem: I probably don’t have to spend much time convincing you that if you are vulnerable to forgetting critical information under stress, your situational awareness becomes at great risk of loss as well. There are ways you can reduce the impact of short-term memory loss and improve firefighter working memory. Here are just a few suggestions:

1. Don’t Try to Multi-Task: It is, virtually, impossible to multitask when it comes to paying attention. Going back and forth between tasks (termed interleaving) is very demanding on the short-term memory and some memory of both tasks is subject to degradation.

2. Share the Workload: The old adage that two heads are better than one is true, so long as there is an understanding between those two heads that each person will play a certain role in managing information and avoid duplication by remembering all the same stuff. Assigning someone to monitor radio traffic is a good way to shed short-term information processing workload.

3. Write It Down: Writing down what needs to be remembered, which as seemingly simple as that advice may appear, is not done often enough in the haste of incident management, especially in the early stages of the incident when information is coming in at a furious pace and the focus is on mission critical task completion. This is also the time when stress is highest and the potential for memory loss is greatest.

4. Prioritize in Advance: Identify in advance the most important pieces of information you’ll need to manage. Use a checklist to ensure you’re gathering and documenting that information. Checklists also serve as a good to-do list of things that need to be accomplished.

Checklists and Worksheets: You are attempting to manage two types of short-term memory: Retrospective memory, the memory of everything that has already been done; and, Prospective memory, the memory of everything that has not yet been done but needs to get done. Under stress, the prospective memory is the more vulnerable. Checklists help manage prospective memory. Worksheets help manage retrospective memory.

About the Author
Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and decision making processes used by first responders. In addition to his 30-plus year career in the fire service, including 22 years as a fire chief, Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in brain science for the benefit of first responders. His website, Situational Awareness Matters ( has enjoyed over a million visits since its launch in October 2011. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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