Staging Your Memories: Long Term, Short Term

By American Geriatrics Society (AGS), Health in Aging Foundation

Psychologists refer to two different memory processes: short-term and long-term memory. Each type corresponds to a length of time: A short-term memory (or working memory) generally lasts for no more than 30 seconds; a long-term memory can last a lifetime.

Short-term memory is a gateway to long-term memory. A short-term memory must be made before it can be transferred to a long-term memory. Recently, psychologists have begun to use the term working memory to refer to short-term memory. The phrase derives from the fact that you’re always working with immediate memories in your current experiences.

Working memory has a lot to do with your attention span. One way that psychologists measure working memory is to ask you to repeat a string of numbers, draw a design, or identify an image that you saw just seconds before. The more you remember, the better your attention and working memory.

Never fear; you can’t clutter your mind with too many memories. Your brain has an extraordinary ability to remember vast quantities of information in long-term memory. As for your working memories, you shed almost all of them seconds after you pick them up. When someone gives you another string of numbers, you’ll most likely forget the set they gave you before. Only the important stuff goes into long-term memory. So how do you decide what’s important?

Imagine that you’re simultaneously talking to your boss on the phone, checking your email, and listening to music when your favorite song starts to play.

Do you focus on the email that says your electric bill is past due (even though you sent in the check last week)? Do you listen to the song or to your boss? What you pay attention to is the key to what you remember because attention is the gateway into short-term memory. If you want to keep your job, you focus your attention to the instructions your boss is giving you and purge the song and the email out of your working memory (for now).

The importance you place on what you do listen to dictates what you store in your long-term memory.

Within your long-term memory, one memory can trigger another memory like a chain reaction. For example, if you begin to describe an event from earlier in your life, you may be surprised that you’re reminded of other circumstances surrounding the event. You unleash a whole chain of associations and rekindle a much wider spectrum of memories.

Try this: Think back to an event in your childhood. Reflect on where that event took place and who was there at the time. Chances are good that a wider picture of what occurred on that day will form in your mind.

Short-term memory and long-term memory differ in many ways. Time is a main distinguishing factor, but so is storage capacity. Although a limit exists on how much you can store in working memory, your long-term memory has no such constraints.

Disruptions to your working memory can occur in a number of ways. Because attention and concentration enable short-term memory, any distraction can hamper your memory. You may be reading this page and the phone rings. After the call, you return to the page and have to reread to see where you left off when the phone rang. Because you were distracted, you forgot what you were holding in working memory. This principle doesn’t apply to long-term memory because that kind of memory is relatively permanent. Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and traumatic brain damage can wreak havoc on your short-term memory; long-term memory remains generally intact, but your ability to retrieve those memories may erode.

Assuming the ideal circumstances, you can count on the following as being the key demands of a good memory:

  • Attention: This is the key to your short-term memory.
  • The degree of importance that information holds for you: This drives the strength of the memory into long-term storage.