Short and Long Term Memory

Once a memory is created, it must be stored (no matter how briefly). Many experts think there are three ways we store memories: first in the sensory stage; then in short-term memory; and ultimately, for some memories, in long-term memory. Because there is no need for us to maintain everything in our brain, the different stages of human memory function as a sort of filter that helps to protect us from the flood of information that we're confronted with on a daily basis.

The creation of a memory begins with its perception: The registration of information during perception occurs in the brief sensory stage that usually lasts only a fraction of a second. It's your sensory memory that allows a perception such as a visual pattern, a sound, or a touch to linger for a brief moment after the stimulation is over.

After that first flicker, the sensation is stored in short-term memory. Short-term memory has a fairly limited capacity; it can hold about seven items for no more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time. You may be able to increase this capacity somewhat by using various memory strategies. For example, a ten-digit number such as 8005840392 may be too much for your short-term memory to hold. But divided into chunks, as in a telephone number, 800-584-0392 may actually stay in your short-term memory long enough for you to dial the telephone. Likewise, by repeating the number to yourself, you can keep resetting the short-term memory clock.

Important information is gradually transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory. The more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory, or to be "retained." (That's why studying helps people to perform better on tests.) Unlike sensory and short-term memory, which are limited and decay rapidly, long-term memory can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely.

People tend to more easily store material on subjects that they already know something about, since the information has more meaning to them and can be mentally connected to related information that is already stored in their long-term memory. That's why someone who has an average memory may be able to remember a greater depth of information about one particular subject.

Most people think of long-term memory when they think of "memory" itself -- but most experts believe information must first pass through sensory and short-term memory before it can be stored as a long-term memory. To learn how information makes its way out of long-term memory, see the next page. We will explore how memories are recalled and what happens when a memory cannot be retrieved - a phenomenon you might call "forgetting."