Short-term memory limitations and how pilots can overcome these

GoFly21 Aug, 2023

It is important that pilots are aware of the limitations of short term memory in relation to reducing risk and communication errors when flying. A good example is when a pilot receives instructions from an air traffic controller. An air traffic control instruction can be detailed and be spoken very quickly.

If the pilot does not focus on the instructions or write the information down, there is a very good chance that the instructions will be forgotten.

What is short term memory 

Short-term memory is responsible for temporarily holding and processing new information. When you are first told a new phone number for example  it is stored in your short term memory.

Limitations of short term memory 

The duration for which information is stored in short-term memory can vary, but it is generally thought to last between 15 to 30 seconds. The other major limitation is we can only store between 7 to 10 separate items in our short term memory at a time.

The relationship between short term and long term memory

Our long term memory is responsible for storing information for an extended period of time, ranging from days to years. It involves transferring information from our short-term memory to long-term storage, through what is known as encoding.

Encoding requires certain techniques such as visualization, repetition and attention, to transfer information from our short term memory to our long term memory.

How to minimise short term memory errors

There are many ways to minimise these memory errors. Below are some simple and effective methods to help boost your short-term memory. Many of these techniques involve actually transferring information from our short term to long term memory.

1. Focused attention

Give your full focus to the information you want to remember. Conducting a pre-flight with no distraction or telling a passenger to remain quiet when you are about to talk over the radio would be an example of preparing yourself to have focused attention.

2. Repetition

Repetition helps move information from short-term memory to long-term memory. An example of this is when new flight students are learning radio calls they verbalise  radio calls over and over again (from a cheat sheet) until it becomes transferred to their long term memory. 

3. Visualisation

Create mental images or associations to help remember abstract information. A good example may be teaching students when they first see a windsock that it is like a pointy finger that always points to where the wind is going. This visualisation helps them remember orientation and how to read a windsock.

4. Write it down

If you are receiving a lot of information, the best way to minimise memory loss is to write it down. For instance, most pilots will write down an initial airways clearance as it can be quite complex and involved. This can be done on paper or on an electronic device.

5. Focus on Key Details

Identify the most crucial information and focus on remembering those key details instead of trying to memorise every single detail. For instance when receiving a new airways clearance, only write down critical information such as transponder codes, assigned altitude and headings. 

Being aware of the limitations of the human brain, and in particular memory, is  important in aviation, for mitigating risk and communication errors.

We hope you enjoyed this article. For more articles, free videos and books please explore the rest of the GoFly Online flight training website.

Happy and safe flying,

The GoFly Online Team 

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