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What Is Short-Term Memory?

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Question: What Is Short-Term Memory?

Short-term memory, also known as primary or active memory, is the information we are currently aware of or thinking about. In Freudian psychology, this memory would be referred to as the conscious mind. The information found in short term memory comes from paying attention to sensory memories.

The Duration of Short-Term Memory

Most of the information kept in short-term memory will be stored for approximately 20 to 30 seconds, but it can be just seconds if rehearsal or active maintenance of the information is prevented. While many of our short-term memories are quickly forgotten, attending to this information allows it to continue on the next stage - long-term memory.

The Capacity of Short-Term Memory

The amount of information that can be stored in short-term memory can vary. An often cited figure is plus or minus seven items, based on the results of a famous experiment on short-term memory. In an influential paper titled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," psychologist George Miller suggested that people can store between five and nine items in short-term memory. More recent research suggests that people are capable of storing approximately four chunks or pieces of information in short-term memory.

Distinction Between Short-Term Memory and Working Memory

Short-term memory is often used interchangeably with working memory, but the two should be utilized separately. Working memory refers to the processes that are used to temporarily store, organize and manipulate information. Short-term memory, on the other hand, refers only to the temporary storage of information in memory.

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Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2, 97?185.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81?97.

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Kendra Cherry
Psychology Guide

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