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How memory works - What are the three memory stores and how to improve our memory

Updated on March 5, 2015
Brain regions
Brain regions | Source

Note : - Tips on how to improve memory are highlighted.

What are the three different types of memory stores?

Sensory store

Information first arriving from the environment is placed into sensory store. It has four characteristics.

1. Sensory store contains all the information captured from the environment by the sense organs

2. Sensory memory has very large capacity

3. Sensory Store is transient

4. Small portion of information in sensory store that is attended to is transferred out of the sensory store into the short term store.

Short term store

This is the repository of information, into which attended information from sensory store is placed. It has following main characteristics. This is also called working memory.

1. It can be roughly identified with consciousness and it has some similarity to a computer RAM chip.

2. Working memory is useful in solving various kinds of problems, mental arithmetic, geometric analogies, and answering questions about text.

3. Information in short term memory is readily accessible

4. Information in short term memory will decay within 20 seconds

5. Information can be prevented from decaying if it is rehearsed and repeated

6. Information in short term memory can undergo elaboration (e.g.transformed into a visual image) when it is transferred into long term store.

7. Short term memory capacity is around 7 plus or minus 2.

8. Information is encoded as visual, phonological or semantic (meaning) codes. Verbal codes are useful in rehearsing. However, visual codes fade quickly.

9. Working memory has two distinct buffers; they are phonological buffer and visual buffer. Both of them are mediated by different areas of the brain.

10. Chunking : - Use of long term memory to recode new material into larger, more meaningful units and storing those in working memory. This can improve short term memory. For an example it is easy to retain numbers “1,9,7,8” as “nineteen seventy eight” than individual numbers (one, nine, seven eight). Here “nineteen seventy eight” use only one of the seven slots in our short term memory compared to four slots.

11. Retrieval : - If there are more items in the working memory then retrieval becomes slower. According the Activation theory memory, retrieval of an item in working memory may depend on the activation of that item reaching a critical level. When more items are in the working memory, less activation there is for any one of them.

12. Working memory plays an important role in thought. In addition, working memory is also crucial for language processes like following a conversation or reading a text.

13. Working memory is situated in prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Long term memory

The large repository of information that is responsible for maintaining all information that is generally available for us.

1. Information enters it via various kinds of elaborative processes, from the short term store.

2. Size of the long term memory is unlimited; it can store information few minutes to lifelong.

3. Long term store is analogous to a computer hard drive.

4. Information that is acquired from the long term store is place into the short term memory for further processing.

5. Long term memory use various Encoding methods to store information

a. Encoding of the meaning: - Usually long term store contains information stored as the meaning.

b. Other coding’s are phonological codes, visual impressions, tastes, and smells.

c. Adding meaningful connections: - Memory can be improved by adding meaningful connections (real or artificial links) between items. The better we understand the meaning, more retrieval cues are created by us, which increases the chances of our memory. Therefore to improve memory, try to understand what you are trying to memorize.

6. Storage

a. Forgetting can result due to storage failure, e.g. ECT,

b. Critical structures responsible for proper long term memory formation are hippocampus and the surrounding cortical structures. They are important in consolidation of long term memory. Memories need to be processed for few weeks in the hippocampal area to be stored in long term memory. Damage to these areas due to accidents can result in memory failure or amnesia.

c. Permanent long term memory storage is almost certainly localized in cortex, particularly in the regions where sensory information is interpreted.

7. Retrieval

a. We use retrieval cues to access vast amounts of knowledge in the long term memory. For an example the retrieval cue “cars” will bring out all the names of the cars we know such as Toyota, Honda.Therefore when you try to remember something, remembering the category it belongs will usually helps.

b. Many cases of long term memory loss are the result of losing the retrieval cues. Here information is there but we have lost the retrieval cue.

c. Interference: - This is the cause for common retrieval failure. It is due to association of different items with the same cue. So when trying to use a cue can result in activation of different item.Therefore never try to memorize similar items simultaneously. For an example, after you have studied geography then try to study mathematics then go to something like social sciences.

8. Interactions between encoding and retrieval

a. Organization: - the more we organize material we encode, the easier it is to retrieve. It is easier to recall when we encode them as categories.

b. Context : - it is easier to retrieve a particular fact or episode if you are in the same context in which you encoded it. For an example you may recall the names of your friends in the primary school when you go to your primary school. Therefore, If you want to remember a friends name in your primary class, then imagining the classroom can usually helps.

9. Emotional factors in forgetting

a. We tend to think about emotionally charged situations, (negative or positive) more than we think about neutral ones. Therefore, we tend to rehearse and organize exciting memories more than we do to neutral ones. This will improve our memory in the emotionally charged situations.

b. Flashbulb memories : - It is a vivid and relatively permanent record of the circumstances in which one learned of an emotionally charged significant event.

For an example you may remember the cloth you were wearing, what you have ate, what you have talked, at the time terrorists attack the world trade centre on 9/11.

c. Retrieval interference via anxiety: - Anxiety is often accompanied with irrelevant thoughts. These thoughts fill our sensorium and cause memory failure by interference with the cues necessary for retrieval.Therefore try to reduce anxiety before remembering things.

d. Context effects: - Recall is best when dominant emotion during retrieval matched during encoding. For an example we tend to recall fights we had when we are angry.

e. Repression: - described by the Freud, here access to the target memories are actively blocked.


Introduction to psychology by Atkinson and Hilgard 14th edition

Students are advised to prepare for tests under similar contexts as they expect to be tested in—for example, under silent conditions
Students are advised to prepare for tests under similar contexts as they expect to be tested in—for example, under silent conditions | Source


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    • njmanura profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Manura Nanayakkara 

      7 years ago from Sri Lanka



    • Shinkicker profile image


      7 years ago from Scotland

      Nice summary on memory and retrieval. I teach English to foreign students and one of the first things I do in class is to explain 'Learning Styles' and how we use different strategies to learn and remember information.

      Voted up!

    • JT Walters profile image

      JT Walters 

      9 years ago from Florida

      I did a meta-analysis of memory and cognition and this Hub is very informative. as I understand memory it is all about retrieval.

      Great Hub!!


    • njmanura profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Manura Nanayakkara 

      9 years ago from Sri Lanka

      Always exploring

      Thanks for the comment

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      9 years ago from Southern Illinois

      This is a very educational Hub. I find that using the alphabet helps me retrieve names, like if i've forgotten a name , say, Betty, i start a b, the b cues the name Betty. This works 90% of the time for me. Thank you for sharing.

    • njmanura profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Manura Nanayakkara 

      9 years ago from Sri Lanka


      Thank you for the comments,Corrected some grammar mistakes

    • edmondsyd profile image


      9 years ago from Michigan

      This is fantastic information. Just a few more grammaticals to clear up and you have an A+ winner! I have MS, and it is important for me to improve my memory, because it is deteriorating. Thank you for writing this. :)

    • njmanura profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Manura Nanayakkara 

      9 years ago from Sri Lanka

      Thanks for the comments, made some corrections and more explanations with examples were added to the original article.

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 

      9 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      Your poiint in 8a was the most poignant in this hub. Categorizing events as they are being stored in long term memory certainly does serve to aid in its later retrieval. Thank you for sharing this.


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