Short-Term Memory

Published on September 22nd, 2020

Updated on January 2nd, 2024

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory refers to information that is immediately being processed in the brain. The information stored into short-term memory consists of immediate thoughts, attention and sensory stimulation. Short-term memory is fleeting. It is not stored in the brain for long. Information from the short-term memory only lasts a few seconds or minutes, and is limited to only storing a few pieces of information at a time.

Short-term memory is also referred to as active memory. This is because it is the memory of information that is active in your brain. If the mind is focusing on information in the short-term memory, it will remain active. However, if the mind redirects its attention onto something else, the short-term memory will fade away. This typically occurs in under a minute.

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Process Of Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory is a delicate form of memory. Since memories stored in the short-term are so fleeting, they can be difficult to recall without practice. Typically, if a person needs to commit something in short-term memory to recall, they need to actively work on keeping the information in short-term memory. This process often requires rehearsal and repetition of information. It also requires a resilience against distracting thoughts, conversation, information or stimulation.

Example: Caitlin was instructed to go to the grocery store. Her mother told her to get 5 items:

  • Bread
  • Sugar
  • Butter
  • Toothpaste
  • Celery

On the way to the grocery store, Caitlin thought about the sugar her mother wanted her to get. She wondered what her mother was going to bake with the sugar. Caitlin began thinking about the cakes, cookies and pies that may be in her future.

When Caitlin arrived at the store, she remembered to get sugar. She remembered because sugar had been repeating in her mind. However, the bread, celery butter and toothpaste had faded out of her short-term memory. Since she was not rehearsing or focusing on the other four items, she did not remember them when she got to the store.

Caitlin decided to call her mother for a reminder of the list. Her mother listed out the four items again. Caitlin committed the list to her memory by repeating “bread, sugar, butter, toothpaste, celery” over and over until she was done shopping and ready to check out.

In this example, Caitlin was not able to commit the list to memory. This is because she became distracted about her thoughts about what her mother could be baking. Short-term memory is often compromised by distractions. These distractions can be anything, from strain of thought to sensory stimulation. Conversations or an overflow of information can also negatively impact short-term memory.

Caitlin was eventually able to commit the list to short-term memory through a method of repetition. She repeated the list in her mind so many times that she was able to remember the list long enough to complete her shopping trip. She also committed herself to not giving in to distracting thoughts, and stayed focused on her task. Attention to her mental list helped improve her short-term memory.

George Miller’s Magic Number

George Miller
George Miller

George Miller was an American psychologist who focused on cognitive sciences. Miller is most well known for his theory of the Magic Number. George Miller believed that a typical mind can remember an average of seven items at a time. His theory maintained that the short-term memory can store ‘seven, plus or minus two’ items.

In other words, the brain can immediately remember and recall between five and nine items at a time, with an average of seven items. The number of items the brain can remember is unique for each person. Some may only be able to remember 5 items, while others will be able to remember more. On average, a person will be able to remember 7 items at a time.

Example: Kevin is a waiter for a local restaurant. During his shift, he needs to take drink orders. One of his tables has 6 people. After taking the orders, he transfers the information from memory to the bartender. He is able to remember a cola, a water, an orange soda, a coffee, a club soda and a ginger ale.

Kevin’s next table has 9 people. Kevin knows that on average he can only remember up to 7 drink orders at a time. Considering he knows he can remember 7 drinks, but will likely forget 2 of the drinks once he reaches the bartender, he decides to write down the drink order, rather than relying on his short-term memory.

The Magic Number and Chunking

George Miller expanded his research to find that short-term memory recall is strongest when information is stored in chunks. This means that rather than remembering each piece of information individually, it is chunked into pieces. These pieces may consist of a defining characteristic, or a rhythmic pattern. Dividing information into chunks increases the chances that short-term memory will be able to store all of the items for recall.

Example: A prime example of how short-term memory follows the Magic Number rule is demonstrated with remembering phone numbers. A phone number is a combination of 10 numbers. These numbers can be in any combination, which should make it difficult to remember. However, with chunking, remembering a phone number becomes much easier.

Consider the following, which is easier to remember?

9876543210 or (987) 654 – 3210

Short-Term Memory and Long-Term Memory

Short-term memory is memory that is only held for a limited amount of time. The information in the short-term memory cannot stay in the short-term memory forever. It has a limited capacity for information, but there is content that needs to be stored.

When information that enters the short-term memory has a profound effect on a person, it is often transferred into long-term memory. This means it is stored into the memory centers that will last for longer than a few seconds or minutes. The memories that are stored in the long-term memory will be able to be recognized and retrieved from the memory centers of the brain.

Information stored in the short-term memory that does not make it into the long-term memory is left unprocessed. In other words, it is forgotten.

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