Short-term memory is the portion of the memory dedicated to recalling brief chunks of information for 20 to 30 seconds at a time. Its capacity is about seven items at once in most people, though the precise number of items people can hold in their short-term memory varies somewhat from person to person.
Purpose and Memory Storage
Many people mistakenly think of short-term memories as memories that last a few hours or days, but the storage time of short-term memory is much shorter than this. Short-term memory stores information just long enough for it to be used in normal functions such as conversations. Remembering a few pieces of information at a time allows people to easily engage in discussion, to recall brief bursts of information, and to write down phone numbers and addresses.
Information stored in short-term memory can be remembered for longer periods of time if it is frequently rehearsed. For example, if you repeat a phone number to yourself every few seconds, you will renew your short-term memory of the number. However, you will not typically be able to store other pieces of information in short-term memory until you have rehearsed the memory enough that it becomes a long-term memory.
Memory in Pop Culture
The U.S. and World Memory Championships are competitions that encourage participants to greatly expand their short-term and long-term memory capacity. Participants may, for example, memorize long strings of numbers, lists of product ingredients, or lines of poetry in just a few moments. Much research has shown that memory techniques such as chunking (remembering pieces of information in chunks of two or three) and associations (associating information with something easier to remember) can help improve memory. Memory championship participants frequently, for example, use “memory palaces.” They place each item they are asked to memorize in a room in a house within their head, and this makes it easier to “locate” the item in short-term memory.
- Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything. New York, NY: Penguin Press.
Last Updated: 08-26-2015
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