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Short term memory: What is it and practical exercises

What is short-term memory? How is it different from long-term memory? In the following article, we will try to answer these and other questions with practical examples and everyday situations.

Short term memory

What is short term memory?

Short term memory is a system that allows us to store a limited amount of information for a short period of time.

For example, short-term memory has made it possible for you to be able to read the previous sentence and understand its meaning. Without short term memory, by the time you had reached the last word of the sentence, you would probably have forgotten the first word you read. We use short-term memory many times in our daily lives. Another example would be when someone gives us their phone number: we need short-term memory to keep the number in our mind for as long as it takes us to write it down or dial it on our phone.

Activities to exercise short-term memory

How much information can we store thanks to short-term memory? And for how long? To answer these questions, we are going to use the following exercise:

1. Remembering numbers

Read aloud the following numbers: 7293 and then cover them with a piece of paper. Can you remember the numbers in the same order? Well, let’s try more numbers. Cover them with a piece of paper as soon as you have read them and try to remember each set of numbers in the same order in which they are written before moving on to the next set. Ready?

  • 40863
  • 785342
  • 7916382
  • 16249067
  • 912308462
  • 6129347320

How many numbers have you been able to remember? This type of task is known as a digit span. It has been used on numerous occasions to study short-term memory. In this task, most people remember about seven digits in the same order.

Therefore, what this task tell us about short-term memory is that a person has a short-term memory capacity of about seven elements. As for the duration of this type of memory, as you have seen, the elements remain in our mind only for a few seconds and then they vanish.

In summary, short-term memory is a fragile type of memory with a limited capacity, very sensitive to interference. The content stored in short-term memory usually disappears within a few seconds unless we repeat it over and over again or use some other strategy. In these cases, the stored information may become part of the long-term memory. Unlike short-term memory, long-term memory is stable, insensitive to interference, and long-lasting.

2. Free recall task

Another way to study short-term memory is through the free recall task. This task consists of repeating a long list of words a certain number of times in order to see the learning process of the person evaluated. Let’s look at an example of this type of task. Next, words will appear in four columns. Read them consecutively, cover them with a piece of paper and try to remember the words you have read. You don’t have to remember the words in the same order they appear.

short term memory list

What words do you remember? Write them down on a piece of paper and repeat the procedure four more times. Have you managed to remember all the words?

When doing this task, it often happens that especially in the first attempts, the people evaluated prefer to remember the first and last words on the list. Remembering the first words on the list is known as the primacy effect and occurs in a stable way throughout repetitions. In this case, “analysis, approach, and area” would be more likely to be remembered than words in the middle columns. On the other hand, remembering the last words in the list is called the recency effect and has particular characteristics. At the end of the list, we are more likely to remember the words “structure, theory, and variable” than the words in the middle columns. Unlike the primacy effect, the recency effect is very sensitive to interference. This means that if we take a break after reading the list or do another task before trying to remember the words in the list, the recency effect will fade away and we will no longer remember which were the last words we had read.

The primacy effect is related to long-term memory or learning, while the recency effect depends on how we use short-term memory.

A trick to train your short-term memory: Chunking

Several studies show that training can improve a person’s performance o short-term memory tasks. One strategy to increase the number of elements we are able to repeat in a digit span task is chunking. A chunk can be defined as a set of elements treated as a unit. For example, the first sequence of digits we saw in the first section was 7293, which is equal to four elements, 7, 2, 9 and 3. However, if instead of reading digit by digit we read that sequence as “7.293”, we will be coding those four digits as a single element, a chunk.

Let’s see another example of chunking, but this time using letters instead of digits. Let’s imagine that we have to memorize a sequence of ten letters: “h”, “a”, “p”, “p”, “i”, “n”, “e”, “s”, “s”. To repeat this sequence of letters, we need to retain ten elements in our short-term memory system. Instead, we can put those ten letters together in the word “happiness” which will count as a single element.

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Studies have shown that the retention capacity of chunks in digit-width tasks is about four or five chunks.

A well-known example of this type of memory training using the chunking technique is the S.F. case, presented by researchers Ericsson, Chase and in 1980. S.F. was a normal person with average intellectual performance who, after more than a year’s training in digit tasks, went from repeating seven digits to repeating 79. How could S.F. achieve this? The researchers stated that S.F. grouped the digits presented in chunks of three and four digits each, and then associated each chunk with mnemonic strategies of time it took runners to complete a race. Thus, the sequence “3, 4, 9, 2” was categorized as “3 minutes and 49.2 seconds”, a world record in one race. In other words, S.F. associated each of the sets of digits retained in his short-term memory with codes that already existed in his long-term memory.

However, the fact that S.F. could repeat up to 79 digits in the digit range task does not mean that he had short-term since as we said in the first section, short-term memory is a system with limited capacity. In fact, when the researchers changed the format of the task and S.F. had to repeat sequences of letters instead of digits, the number of letters he was able to repeat was no longer 79, but about seven elements or four/five chunks.

Curiosities: Clive Wearing

Another highly studied case in psychology in relation to memory is the case of Clive Wearing, a case that has linked memory with consciousness. Clive Wearing was a musician who suffered acquired brain damage as a result of an infection by herpes. The brain damage from this infection caused Wearing to have an important effect on his memory.

In addition to losing most of his memories, Clive Wearing lost his ability to retain information beyond a few seconds or minutes. That is, the information remains in his memory only for a few seconds and then fades away without becoming part of his long-term memory. As a result, Wearing is unable to recognize the people he works with every day or remember what has happened to him.

What Wearing seems to experience is that he recovers his consciousness, as reflected in a diary that he updated every few minutes. During those seconds or minutes, Clive Wearing felt he had woken up and didn’t remember anything he had done minutes before. When his temporary memory store was exhausted, all the information retained during those seconds would fade away and Clive would rewrite that he had regained consciousness.

However, some memories from Clive’s previous life remained, such as his musical ability. This can be seen as evidence that memory is a complex system that includes different independent memory systems.

References

  • Baddeley, A. D. (2014). Essentials of human memory. New York, United States: Psychology Press.
  • Baddeley, A. D., Thomson, N. Buchanan, M. (1975). Word and the structure of short-term memory. Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior, 14, 575-589.
  • Schwarb, H., Nail, J. and Schumacher, E. H. (2015). Working memory training improves visual short-term memory capacity. Psychological Research, 80(1): 128-148.
  • Ericsson, K. A., Chase, W., and Faloon, S. (1980). Acquisition of a memory skill. Science, 208, 1181-1182.
  • Morgado, I. (2005). Psychobiology of learning and memory. Cuadernos de Información y Comunicación, 10, 221-233.
  • Mathy, F. and Feldman, J. (2012). What’s magic about magic numbers? Chunking and data compression in short term memory. Cognition, 122, 346-362.

Types of Memory: Learn everything you need to know

Where did you put the keys? Why does she look so familiar? What was his name again? This is a situation we have all been at one point or another. That feeling like we don’t remember where we were going, or what we had on our to-do list for tomorrow. All these situations have in common one cognitive skill: memory. There are different types of memory that can explain why sometimes we are forgetful about certain things and not others. Learn everything about the different types of memory in this article. 

Memory is one of the cognitive abilities that we use daily, without even knowing it. It allows us to properly store new information in our brain so that it can be easily recalled later. Even though this process is intuitive, it’s a lot more complicated than it seems because we have different types of memory. Like other cognitive skills, types of memory can also be assessed. There are many ways of assessing types of memory, from standard testing such as the Weschler’s scales to CogniFit online General Cognitive Assessment.

General Cognitive Assessment Battery from CogniFit: Study brain function and complete a comprehensive online screening. Precisely evaluate a wide range of abilities and detect cognitive well-being (high-moderate-low). Identify strengths and weaknesses in the areas of memory, concentration/attention, executive functions, planning, and coordination.

The good news is that this complex cognitive ability can be trained by practicing specific memory exercises. Even though we’re not always aware of it, we can do things to train our memory to keep it from deteriorating prematurely. It’s much more effective to prevent its decline and boost our memory while its still in shape than to wait until we see signs of memory problems. Memory problems cause anxiety in those who suffer, which is why more and more people are starting routines to help them improve their cognitive functions. Many scientific studies have shown that memory is one of the cognitive abilities that can be trained with exercises designed by neurologists and specialists.

Types of Memory

The main two types of memory are the short-term memory and long-term memory based on the amount of time the memory is stored.

Short-Term Memory: the memory mechanism that allows us to retain a certain amount of information over a short period of time. Short-term memory temporarily retains processed information that either fades quickly or turns into a long-term memory. It is limited and has two objectives. The first is to keep information in our brain without it being present, and the second is to manage this information so that it can be used in higher mental processes. 

Long-term Memory: Long-term memory could be defined as the brain mechanism that makes it possible to code and retain an almost unlimited amount of information over a long period of time. The memories stored in long-term memory can last for up to a few years.

Types of Memory related to short-term memory

Types of Memory: Sensory Memory

We receive sensory memory through our senses and it lasts for a very short period of time, about 200 to 300 milliseconds. This information can be visual, auditory, tactile, smell, etc. These memories either fade or are stored in short-term memory. The information only lasts for as long as it takes to be processed and stored.

Types of Memory: Working Memory

Working memory, or operative memory, can be defined as the set of processes that allow us to store and manipulate temporary information and carry-out complex cognitive tasks like language comprehension, reading, learning, or reasoning. Working memory is a type of short-term memory. Its capacity is limited We are only able to store 5-9 elements at a time. It is active. It doesn’t only store information, it also manipulates and transforms it. Its content is permanently being updated and it is modulated by the dorsolateral frontal cortex.

Once you have assessed the different types of memory, there are different types of activities that help improve them. From games such as Sudoku to full on personalized brain training.

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Types of Long-term Memory

Types of Memory: Declarative 

Declarative Memory is the information stored in our memory systems that can be explained and recalled voluntarily and consciously. The brain systems related to this memory system are the medial temporal lobe, the diencephalon, and the neocortex, and is divided into two parts.

Types of Memory: Semantic

Semantic Memory refers to the set of information that we have about the world around us. This information is unrelated to how or when it was learned and includes vocabulary, academic concepts, or anything that we know about a certain subject. For example, you know that an apple is a fruit that you can eat, that there are different colored apples, and that it comes from the apple tree, but you probably don’t remember when you learned this information.

Types of Memory: Episodic

Episodic Memory includes the concrete experiences that we have lived and has a very close relationship to how and when information is learned. For example, remembering what you ate for dinner last night, where you parked your car, when you visited a certain city for the first time, who you went to a certain party with, or when you met that person.

Types of Memory: Non-Declarative or Implicit

Implicit Memory is stored in your memory systems, but can’t be talked about. It is usually acquired or incorporated through implicit learning (you may not be conscious that you’re learning it). This type of memory is quite resistant to brain damage, which usually leaves it less affected than other memory systems. This type of memory uses different parts of the brain, like the neocortex, the amygdala, the cerebellum, and the basal ganglia. It also includes other subdivisions. This is used subconsciously and helps to learn new skills like driving or riding a bike.

Types of Memory: Procedural

Procedural Memory is made up of information of muscular movements that we have learned to automatize through practice, like habits and other skills. For example, riding a bike, throwing a ball, or moving a computer mouse.

Types of Memory: Priming

Priming refers to the ease with which we activate and remember a certain concept in our minds. For example, you would probably remember the word “sedan” quicker if you were talking about “cars”, “trucks” or “convertibles”.

Types of Memory: Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditional relates to the link between a conditioned stimulus and a response that has previously been associated with an unconditioned stimulus. For example, if you hear a bell chiming (conditioned stimulus) before blowing air in your eye (unconditioned stimulus), hearing the bell chime would be enough to cause you to blink (conditioned response). This relationship forms part of the non-declarative or implicit memory

The use of all of these types of memory is essential in our day-to-day, as it is one of the cognitive abilities that we use constantly.