The human brain is an extremely complex organ. Scientists and researchers have learned a lot about it over decades of study, and there is still a lot we don’t know. One of the most complex functions of the brain is memory. It’s an important part of life, and it contributes to learning, teaching, and everyday functioning. To study and talk about memory and its function, scientists have come up with terms to describe different types of memory and their roles in your brain.
Short and long-term memory are two major categories that describe the way we store and retrieve information that we experience. It’s important to note that memory is complex, and we’re still learning more about how it works. Some concepts about the categories of memory are still being debated and revised.
But what is the difference between short-term and long-term memory? And what is working memory? Learn more about the different types of memory and how memory works.
What Is Memory?
Before getting into the different types of memory, it is important to understand what memory actually is. Memory is information you learn that stays with you over time. It’s stored, and you can recall it again when you need it. However, memory is more complicated than it sounds. Some things stick with you forever. Even though you can recall a fraction of your time in elementary school, some bits of information last the rest of your life, and things that seemed important at one point slip away after a few years. For instance, you may remember that the nucleus is the powerhouse of the cell, but you can’t remember the last name of your best friend from the third grade.
Memories are often stored differently, so their longevity and the amount you can retain may depend on the type of information you receive. For instance, the worst case of amnesia in history is thought to involve a prominent English musician named Clive Wearing in 1985. He contracted a brain infection that affected the part of his brain that’s responsible for memory.
He was only able to remember things for seconds at a time, he remembered none of his past, and he couldn’t form new memories. Interestingly, he never failed to recognize his wife and he could still play the piano. He was once asked, “Do you feel different when you play music?” He responded, “I don’t know what it’s like to play music… I’ve never heard a note yet.” That means he remembered how to do something he couldn’t remember ever experiencing.
You can also access memory in three different ways: recall, recognition, and relearning. Recall is your ability to pull information from your brain that you once learned in the past. If you’re asked what street your childhood home was on, you could recall that information. Recognition is identifying old information that’s in front of you. If someone asks you if your dog is a labrador or a retriever, you can recognize which one. When your mom walks into the room, you recognize her face and recall her name.
Relearning is measured by time saved when you learn something again. In other words, when you hear information that you learned before, it takes less time for you to commit it to memory. For instance, when you play monopoly for the first time in several years, you may not remember all the rules but relearning allows you to pick them up quickly because you learned them before.
The more that is learned about memory, the more we realize that it’s complex and important for a variety of functions in everyday life. It’s essential to your job, relationships, and quality of life.
Short-Term Memory Versus Long-Term Memory
Long-term memory is where most of the information you are aware of is stored. Your childhood memories, the names of the people you know, how to ride a bike, and millions of other things are in your short-term memory. Long-term memory is an important part of life, allowing you to grow, progress, and teach things to other people. It also allows you to function in life. The next time you go to the supermarket, be thankful for your long-term memory when you’re able to find your way home.
However, many more things make it into your short-term memory before they’re lost.
Short-term memory involves information that’s retained for a short amount of time and then lost, while long-term memory lasts much longer. Short-term and long-term memory is different in two major ways. The first is the length of time memory is retained, and the second is the amount of information that can be retained. It’s thought that short-term memory only lasts for about 15 to 30 seconds before the information is lost or put into long-term memory. Short-term memory is also thought to only be able to contain around seven items of information.
If this all sounds strange to you, you’re not the only one. The concept of short-term memory is controversial and debated. Memory is a little more complex than retaining seven things for 30 seconds. Information may be difficult to measure in distinct units, and information doesn’t always erase from your brain at the 30-second mark.
What is Working Memory?
Working memory is a small amount of information that you use for tasks that you’re doing right now. It’s related to the concept of short-term memory, but it has specific functions. It’s thought to fulfill one of the following functions:
- Working memory is short-term memory that’s used to execute specific tasks.
- Working memory is a system that’s designed to manipulate and use short-term memories.
- Working memory is attention that’s designed to manage short-term memory.
Either way, working memory is the information that you use from moment to moment. For instance, while you read this sentence, you are taking in words their meaning and placing them into the context of the rest of the article. You may also be checking your clock to see how much time you have left to procrastinate during the workday or looking over your shoulder to make sure your boss doesn’t see you not working. All of that comes in waves of information, and you’re only conscious of some of it.
Working memory may also incorporate information from long-term memory so that you can apply it to new information to complete a task. For instance, imagine you’re in a meeting at work, and you’re watching a budget presentation. You gather information that’s being presented, you know where the presentation started, you can anticipate where it’s headed, you’re aware of relevant information about your company, and you have an idea about the budgetary needs in the coming months. Your working memory allows you to process all of that information so you can ask a relevant follow-up question after the presentation is over.
How Does Memory Work?
Memory is thought to work through a process that was theorized by American psychologists Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin. In this process, information is perceived by your senses and makes it into your sensory memory, which is immediate and fleeting. Information that goes no further than that is lost. If you drive down a street and you’re later asked what color the fourth house on the left side of the street was, you may not be able to recall. You may have seen the house, but its color only made it into sensory memory.
If you pay attention to information enough to commit it to memory, it will become short-term memory. If you’re asked to remember the color of the houses on the street, you may pay attention and repeat the colors in your mind to remember them. However, by the next day or week, you will no longer be able to remember it with as much clarity. You can only handle a finite amount of short-term memory. After that, memories either fade away, or they make it into long-term memory. Long-term memory is responsible for the most information.
However, the process of transferring short-term memory to long-term memory is more complicated than that. Later theories about short-term memory gave way to the idea of working memory.
Other Kinds of Memory
Short and long-term memory primarily describes how memory is stored, and working memory is how you process memory to complete tasks. But there are many other memory categories. Explicit memory is information that you consciously store and recollect, like a person’s name. Implicit memory is information that you absorb and recall unconsciously, like your path to walk from your bedroom to the bathroom or how to brush your teeth. Both of these kinds of memory are long-term memory, and they each have three subcategories of their own.