Learning Objectives

Describe the three stages of memory storageDistinguish between implicit and explicit memory and semantic and episodic memory

Once the information has been encoded, we somehow have to retain it. Our brains take the encoded information and place it in storage. Storage is the creation of a permanent record of information.

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In order for a memory to go into storage (i.e., long-term memory), it has to pass through three distinct stages: Sensory Memory, Short-Term Memory, and finally Long-Term Memory. These stages were first proposed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin (1968). Their model of human memory (Figure 1), called Atkinson and Shiffrin’s model, is based on the belief that we process memories in the same way that a computer processes information.

Figure 2. Work through this series of numbers using the recall exercise explained above to determine the longest string of digits that you can store.


Note the longest string at which you got the series correct. For most people, the capacity will probably be close to 7 plus or minus 2. In 1956, George Miller reviewed most of the research on the capacity of short-term memory and found that people can retain between 5 and 9 items, so he reported the capacity of short-term memory was the “magic number” 7 plus or minus 2. However, more contemporary research has found working memory capacity is 4 plus or minus 1 (Cowan, 2010). Generally, recall is somewhat better for random numbers than for random letters (Jacobs, 1887) and also often slightly better for information we hear (acoustic encoding) rather than information we see (visual encoding) (Anderson, 1969).

Memory trace decay and interference are two factors that affect short-term memory retention. Peterson and Peterson (1959) investigated short-term memory using the three letter sequences called trigrams (e.g., CLS) that had to be recalled after various time intervals between 3 and 18 seconds. Participants remembered about 80% of the trigrams after a 3-second delay, but only 10% after a delay of 18 seconds, which caused them to conclude that short-term memory decayed in 18 seconds. During decay, the memory trace becomes less activated over time, and the information is forgotten. However, Keppel and Underwood (1962) examined only the first trials of the trigram task and found that proactive interference also affected short-term memory retention. During proactive interference, previously learned information interferes with the ability to learn new information. Both memory trace decay and proactive interference affect short-term memory. Once the information reaches long-term memory, it has to be consolidated at both the synaptic level, which takes a few hours, and into the memory system, which can take weeks or longer.

Long-term Memory

Long-term memory (LTM) is the continuous storage of information. Unlike short-term memory, long-term memory storage capacity is believed to be unlimited. It encompasses all the things you can remember that happened more than just a few minutes ago. One cannot really consider long-term memory without thinking about the way it is organized. Really quickly, what is the first word that comes to mind when you hear “peanut butter”? Did you think of jelly? If you did, you probably have associated peanut butter and jelly in your mind. It is generally accepted that memories are organized in semantic (or associative) networks (Collins & Loftus, 1975). A semantic network consists of concepts, and as you may recall from what you’ve learned about memory, concepts are categories or groupings of linguistic information, images, ideas, or memories, such as life experiences. Although individual experiences and expertise can affect concept arrangement, concepts are believed to be arranged hierarchically in the mind (Anderson & Reder, 1999; Johnson & Mervis, 1997, 1998; Palmer, Jones, Hennessy, Unze, & Pick, 1989; Rosch, Mervis, Gray, Johnson, & Boyes-Braem, 1976; Tanaka & Taylor, 1991). Related concepts are linked, and the strength of the link depends on how often two concepts have been associated.

Semantic networks differ depending on personal experiences. Importantly for memory, activating any part of a semantic network also activates the concepts linked to that part to a lesser degree. The process is known as spreading activation (Collins & Loftus, 1975). If one part of a network is activated, it is easier to access the associated concepts because they are already partially activated. When you remember or recall something, you activate a concept, and the related concepts are more easily remembered because they are partially activated. However, the activations do not spread in just one direction. When you remember something, you usually have several routes to get the information you are trying to access, and the more links you have to a concept, the better your chances of remembering.

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There are two types of long-term memory: explicit and implicit (Figure 8.6). Understanding the difference between explicit memory and implicit memory is important because aging, particular types of brain trauma, and certain disorders can impact explicit and implicit memory in different ways. Explicit memories are those we consciously try to remember, recall, and report. For example, if you are studying for your chemistry exam, the material you are learning will be part of your explicit memory. In keeping with the computer analogy, some information in your long-term memory would be like the information you have saved on the hard drive. It is not there on your desktop (your short-term memory), but most of the time you can pull up this information when you want it. Not all long-term memories are strong memories, and some memories can only be recalled using prompts. For example, you might easily recall a fact, such as the capital of the United States, but you might struggle to recall the name of the restaurant at which you had dinner when you visited a nearby city last summer. A prompt, such as that the restaurant was named after its owner, might help you recall the name of the restaurant. Explicit memory is sometimes referred to as declarative memory, because it can be put into words. Explicit memory is divided into episodic memory and semantic memory.