Short-Term Memory

How is new information stored in our memory? How long can a memory last? How can we remember new information? Our short-term memory is our innate system of keeping track of new information items and can be a fickle thing. 

Short-Term Memory Short-Term Memory

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Contents
Table of contents
    • First, we will explore the short-term memory definition and how the information is encoded in the store.
    • Next, we will understand the short-term memory capacity and duration that the research suggests.
    • Next, we will discuss how to improve short-term memory.
    • Lastly, examples of short-term memory are identified.

    Short-term Memory: Definition

    Short-term memory is exactly as it sounds, quick and short. Our short-term memory refers to the memory systems in our brain that are involved in remembering bits of information for a short period.

    This short time usually lasts about thirty seconds. Our short-term memory works as a visuospatial sketchpad for information that the brain has recently soaked up so that those sketches can be processed into memories later.

    Short-term memory is the ability to store a small amount of information in mind and keep it readily available for a short period. It is also known as primary or active memory.

    How information is encoded in the short- and long-term memory stores differ in terms of encoding, duration and capacity. Let’s take a look at the short-term memory store in detail.

    Short-term Memory Encoding

    Memories stored in short-term memory are usually encoded acoustically, i.e., when spoken aloud repeatedly, the memory is likely to be stored in short-term memory.

    Conrad (1964) presented participants (visually) with letter sequences for a short duration, and they had to recall the stimuli immediately. In this way, the researchers ensured that short-term memory was measured.

    The study found that participants had more difficulty recalling acoustically similar stimuli than acoustically dissimilar ones (they were better at remembering ‘B’ and ‘R’ than ‘E’ and ‘G’, even though B and R looked visually similar).

    The study also infers that the visually presented information was encoded acoustically.

    This finding shows that short-term memory encodes information acoustically, as similar-sounding words have similar encoding and are easier to confuse and recall less accurately.

    Short-Term Memory Capacity

    George Miller, through his research, said that we could hold (normally) around seven items in our short-term memory (plus or minus two items). In 1956, Miller even published his theory of short-term memory in his article ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two’.

    Miller also suggested that our short-term memory works by chunking information rather than remembering individual numbers or letters. Chunking can explain why we can recall items. Can you remember an old phone number? Chances are that you can! This is because of chunking!

    After researching, he realised that people could hold an average of 7+/-2 items in the short-term memory store.

    More recent research suggests that people can store approximately four chunks or pieces of information in short-term memory.

    For example, imagine that you are trying to remember a phone number. The other person rattles off the 10-digit phone number, and you make a quick mental note. Moments later, you realise that you have already forgotten the number.

    Without rehearsing or continuing to repeat the number until it is committed to memory, the information is quickly lost from short-term memory.

    Finally, Miller’s (1956) research into short-term memory did not consider other factors that affect capacity. For example, age could also affect short-term memory, and Jacob’s (1887) research acknowledged that short-term memory gradually improved with age.

    Jacobs (1887) conducted an experiment using a digit span test. He wanted to examine the capacity of short-term memory for numbers and letters. How did he do this? Jacobs used a sample of 443 female students aged eight to nineteen from one particular school. Participants had to repeat back a string of numbers or letters in the same order and the number of digits/letters. As the experiment continued, the number of items gradually increased until the participants could no longer recall the sequences.

    What were the results? Jacobs found that the student could recall 7.3 letters and 9.3 words on average. This research supports Miller’s theory of 7+/-2 numbers and letters that could be remembered.

    Short-Term Memory, brown scrabble pieces scattered, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Jacobs (1887) used letters and number sequences to test short-term memory.

    Duration of Short-term Memory

    We know how many items we can remember, but how long does it last? Most of the information that is kept within our short-term memory can be stored for around 20-30 seconds or sometimes less.

    Some information within our short-term memory can live for around a full minute but, for the most part, will decay or be forgotten quickly.

    So how can the information last longer? Rehearsal strategies are what allow the information to last longer. Rehearsal strategies such as repeating the information mentally or aloud are the most effective.

    But there can be problems with rehearsal! The information in short-term memory is highly susceptible to interference. New information that enters short-term memory will quickly remove old information.

    Also, similar items in the environment can also interfere with short-term memories.

    Peterson and Peterson (1959) presented participants with trigrams (nonsensical/meaningless three-consonant syllables, e.g., BDF). They gave them a distractor/interference task to prevent rehearsal of the stimuli (counting backwards in groups of three). This procedure prevents the information from being shifted to long-term memory. The results showed that accuracy was 80% after 3 seconds, 50% after 6 seconds, and 10% after 18 seconds, indicating the duration of storage in short-term memory of 18 seconds. In addition, recall accuracy decreases the longer the information is stored in short-term memory.

    Improve Short-term Memory

    Is it possible to improve our short-term memory? Absolutely! -- Through chucking and mnemonics.

    Chunking is so natural for humans that we don’t often realise that we are doing it! We can remember information well when we can organise the information into arrangements on a personally meaningful arrangement.

    Chunking is organising items into familiar, manageable units; it often occurs automatically.

    Would you believe that scholars of ancient Greece developed mnemonics? What is mnemonics, and how does it aid our short-term memory?

    Mnemonics are memory aids that rely on techniques that use vivid imagery and organisational devices.

    Mnemonics uses vivid imagery, and as humans, we are better at remembering mental pictures. Our short-term memory can more easily remember words that are visualisable or concrete than abstract words.

    Joshua Foer found himself frustrated with his seemingly ordinary memory and wanted to see if it could improve it. Foer practised intensely for a full year! Joshua joined the United States Memory Championship and won by memorising playing cards (all 52 cards) within two minutes.

    So what was Foer’s secret? Foer created a connection from his childhood home to the cards. Each card represented an area in his childhood home and would essentially create pictures in his mind as he went through the cards.

    Short-term Memory Examples

    Short-term memory examples include where you parked your car, what you had for lunch yesterday, and details from a journal you read yesterday.

    There are three different types of short-term memory, and it is dependent upon the type of information that is being processed for storage.

    Acoustic short-term memory -- This type of short-term memory describes our ability to store the sounds we are bombarded with. Think of a tune or song that gets stuck in your head!

    Iconic short-term memory -- Image storage is the purpose of our innate short-term memory. Can you think about where you left your textbook? When you think of it, can you picture it in your mind?

    Working short-term memory -- Our memory is working hard for us! Our working short-term memory is our ability to store information until we need it later, like an important date or telephone number.

    Short-Term Memory - Key takeaways

    • Short-term memory is the ability to store a small amount of information in mind and keep it readily available for a short period. It is also known as primary or active memory.
    • Memories stored in short-term memory are usually encoded acoustically, i.e., when spoken aloud repeatedly, the memory is likely to be stored in short-term memory.
    • George Miller, through his research, said that we could hold (normally) around seven items in our short-term memory (plus or minus two items).
    • Is it possible to improve our short-term memory? Absolutely! -- Through chucking and mnemonics.
    • There are three different types of short-term memory depending on the information being processed for storage - acoustic, iconic, and working short-term memory.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Short-Term Memory

    How to improve short term memory?

    Through chucking and mnemonics, we can improve short-term memory.

    What is short-term memory? 

    Short-term memory is a memory store where perceived information attended to is stored; it has a limited capacity and duration. 

    How long is short-term memory?

    The duration of short-term memory is about 20-30 seconds.

    How to make short-term memory into long-term?

    We need to rehearse information elaborately to transfer memories from short-term to long-term memories. 

    What are short-term memory examples? 

    Short-term memory examples include where you parked your car, what you had for lunch yesterday, and details from a journal you read yesterday.  

    How to measure short-term memory?

    Psychologists have designed several research techniques to measure short-term memory. For example, Peterson and Peterson (1959) presented participants with trigrams and gave them a distraction task to prevent rehearsal of the stimuli. The purpose of the distraction task was to prevent the information from being moved and processed in the long-term memory store.

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