Short-term memory refers to the temporary storage of information that is currently being processed or used.
Short-term memory has two main components:
- limited capacity: A famous study by Miller (1956) found that it can only contain 7 items at once (plus or minus two).
- limited duration: We tend to be able to hold items in our short-term memory for about 15-30 seconds (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1971) unless we continually rehearse it using a process called maintenance rehearsal.
Despite its short duration, short-term memory has undeniable benefits. It aids in daily tasks, such as recalling a phone number momentarily or following directions. It also plays a vital role in cognitive abilities like reading and problem-solving (Eysenck & Keane, 2020).
There are 6 types of short-term memory, including auditory, visual, spatial, tactile, olfactory, and gustagory.
Short-Term Memory Examples
1. Remembering a Phone Number
If someone tells you a phone number, you use your short-term memory to recall it long enough to dial it. It’s a perfect demonstration of short-term memory in action, as the number usually fades from your memory shortly after you’ve dialed it, unless it’s committed to long-term memory through repeated use or memorization methods like mnemonics, the chunking method, memory linking or the peg word system.
2. Following Directions
When you read or hear instructions and then follow them, you are utilizing your short-term memory. You keep those details in your mind just long enough to complete the task. If you’ve ever assembled furniture from a manual or followed a recipe, you’ve made excellent use of your short-term memory. A good way to commit directions from short-term to long-term memory is to use the method of loci method.
3. Listening to a Lecture
When you attend a seminar or lecture, your short-term memory allows you to process and understand the information presented in real-time. It allows you to maintain a mental “thread” of the conversational context, which is essential for comprehending the full message. Because you need to remember this information longer, you need to use a method such as note-taking or rote memorization to help to convert the information to long-term memory.
4. Playing Games
Many games, both mental and physical, tap into short-term memory. Whether it’s recalling the sequence of colors, remembering the last move your opponent made at chess, or memorizing the cards played in a hand of bridge, games often require the use of short-term memory to succeed. This can help you to get an advantage on your competitors. Some people have mastered this skill, such as card counters, who can have a great advantage in gameplay.
5. Reading a Book
If you’re engrossed in a novel, your short-term memory is working hard. It allows you to remember the start of a sentence when you reach the end, keeps track of the various characters, and enables you to follow the plot. Without short-term memory, reading would be a much more challenging and less enjoyable pursuit. Generally, paragraphs are written so that they contain one ‘chunk’ of information, enough to keep in short-term memory, but if a paragraph gets too long, your short-term memory starts to fail, and you lose your spot in the book.
6. Taking Notes
Taking notes during a lecture or a meeting utilizes your short-term memory to retain information long enough to record it. Remembering points long enough to jot them down in condensed form facilitates auditory and visual learning. It also helps translate larger information chunks into manageable bits, boosting your understanding and retention of the topic. In addition, note-taking also aids in enhancing organizational skills.
7. Multiplication and Division
When working on multiplication or division problems, especially those involving several digits, you use short-term memory. You must retain the carryover number in your mind as you proceed to the next calculation step. Additionally, you have to remember the original problem and the steps you’ve already completed. This active engagement enhances your computational skills and overall numeracy.
8. Recalling Recent Events
When remembering recent events, like the breakfast menu or conversations from a few hours back, your short-term memory comes into play. It temporarily stores recent experiences for quick recall. Interestingly, the human brain tends to favor short-term memories with emotional connections, hence why you might remember a stimulating conversation more than a mundane one. These fleeting memories constitute a significant portion of our daily cognitive activities.
9. Mental Grocery Lists
Making mental grocery lists is a demonstration of short-term memory. Remembering a handful of items long enough to grab them from the store can be challenging, yet it’s a task we often perform. This act of attempting to retain and retrieve data in a short span promotes mental agility. Plus, it shows us how effectively we can use short-term memory in our day-to-day routines.
10. Learning a New Language
In the process of language acquisition, short-term memory plays a critical role. Retaining new vocabulary words and fresh grammar rules in your mind helps in speaking, writing, or understanding a new language. Your short-term memory allows you to juggle this new information in the context of a conversation. In essence, it’s an indispensable tool in the challenging yet rewarding journey of language learning.
11. Remembering Passwords and PINs
Your short-term memory is instrumental when it comes to remembering passwords or PIN numbers momentarily. You recall them just long enough to unlock a device or complete a transaction. This temporary retention highlights the role of short-term memory in safeguarding personal information. However, over-reliance on it for password recall can lead to forgetfulness, hence the need for unique, memorable, yet secure passphrases.
12. Completing Puzzles
When you complete a puzzle, be it a Sudoku or crosswords, you’re actively using your short-term memory. You have to remember previously noted numbers or words to fill out the remaining spaces correctly. This activity not only strengthens short-term memory but also harnesses analytical and problem-solving skills, making it a great cognitive exercise.
13. Cooking a New Recipe
When you’re trying out a new recipe, your short-term memory plays a significant part. You have to remember each ingredient and the sequence in which they’re added, often while multitasking with various cooking processes. This process reinforces the link between short-term memory and task execution, and it shows how effective information recall aids in real-life skills like cooking.
14. Remembering Dates and Appointments
Your short-term memory helps you recall the dates and times of appointments in the near future. Until you write them down or enter them into a digital calendar, this information is held in your short-term memory. This aspect emphasizes the supportive role of short-term memory in managing our time and daily schedules efficiently, contributing to personal organization and responsibility.
15. Learning to Play a Musical Instrument
When learning to play a new musical instrument, short-term memory is heavily relied on. It allows you to remember scales, notes, and sequences that you need to play a piece of music. You often need to store information in short-term memory to know seconds in advance where to move your hands next. This use of memory doesn’t just cultivate musical skills, but it also enhances mental flexibility and cognitive strength, thus contributing to broader personal development.
16. Memorizing Steps to a Dance Routine
When you begin learning a new dance routine, your short-term memory is put to the test. It’s the temporary storage that keeps the choreography steps in check before they become ingrained through practice and repetition to a part of long-term memory. The ability to remember and execute these movements in sequence also helps improve bodily coordination and rhythm. Furthermore, as patterns become more complex and additional steps are added, you begin to stretch the capacity of this memory system. Consequently, this process aids in enhancing cognitive abilities, kindling creativity, and fostering the self-discipline needed to master an art form.
17. Recognizing Faces in a Crowd
Your short-term memory comes into play when you’re scanning a crowd to recognize a familiar face. The mind briefly stores the image of the person you’re seeking, comparing it against the multitude of faces in the crowd. This complex task not only involves visual perception but also quick memory retrieval, underlining how essential short-term memory is in everyday situations. It is this cognitive function that enables us to pick a friend’s face out of a crowd or identify a known face amongst strangers. Beyond social recognition, it’s a testament to human adaptability and survival instincts in navigation through social environments.
18. Calculating Tips in Your Head
When you’re figuring out a tip at a restaurant or cafe, you’re putting your short-term memory to work. You need to remember the total bill amount for a short while in order to perform the percentage calculation accurately. This math-on-the-fly showcases the use of short-term memory in real-world financial decision-making. It’s a simple task which underscores short-term memory’s utility in basic everyday arithmetic, financial judgment, and quick decision-making. Moreover, it reflects the practical role our cognitive abilities play in social etiquette and norms.
19. Recalling Product Details While Shopping
While shopping, particularly for complex items or major purchases, your short-term memory becomes vital. You might need to remember the details of various products, including specifications, prices, and brands, to make a comparative and informed choice. This information, often discussed or read minutes to hours before, is held in the short-term memory for quick access. Rendered as a consumer tool, this memory function aids in making the right choice to maximize satisfaction and value for money. The process underscores the crucial role that short-term memory plays in decision-making, consumer behavior, and savvy resource management.
20. Remembering Names in an Introduction
Your short-term memory is actively engaged when you’re introduced to new people at a social event or professional gathering. You need to remember names and associate them with faces almost immediately after the introduction. The need to recall this data moments after hearing it underscores the function of short-term memory in social interactions and networking. It’s a perfect illustration of its role in maintaining social cohesion. In essence, this ability enhances social communication, impacts human interaction, and can significantly influence professional relationships when nurtured well.
21. Memorizing Lines for a Presentation
When preparing for a presentation or public speaking engagement, your short-term memory is key. You need to remember key points, quotes, and any specific phrasing that you plan to use. In the short period before you present, these lines are held in your short-term memory, ready to be retrieved. This utilization of short-term memory explains how speakers manage to deliver speeches without always resorting to written notes. Thus, it’s not only inherent in learning and information recall, but also vital in communication and public representation.
22. Recognizing Turn Sequences in a Board Game
While engaging in board games, your short-term memory helps to keep track of the sequences and instructions. You need to remember turn orders, game rules, and the actions of other players. This information, stored temporarily, assists in strategizing your next move. Hence, the game of strategy also becomes a test of one’s cognitive ability, displaying the relationship between memory, comprehension, and competitive success. This mental exercise benefits cognitive agility, decision-making, and social interaction in a group setting.
23. Understanding a New Concept in Class
When you’re exposed to a new topic in a class or lecture, your short-term memory serves as an essential tool. You need to remember facts, relate them to each other and to prior knowledge, helping compound understanding of the subject matter. This retention of information forms the first step in the journey from learning to long-term memory storage. Highlighting the role of short-term memory in education and knowledge acquisition, it serves as the initial filter in the learning process. Moreover, it underscores how our cognitive functions aid in personal growth, academic achievement, and overall intellectual development.
24. Recalling Tasks in a To-do List
Creating and remembering a to-do list for the day is a routine task heavily dependent on short-term memory. Details of each task, their sequence, and priority levels are held in your short-term memory, often until they’re completed or jotted down somewhere. This process emphasizes the practical use of short-term memory in productivity and task management, which is integral to efficient day-to-day functioning. It also helps to cultivate personal organization, discipline, and even stress management by effectively decluttering our mental workspace.
25. Listening to and Responding in a Conversation
In any conversation, short-term memory helps to keep track of what’s being said so that we can form appropriate responses. It plays a vital role in understanding the context, recalling related experiences, and keeping pace with the dialogue flow. This function proves how short-term memory is instrumental in social communication, linguistic comprehension, and interpersonal skills. Its role in conversations also enhances our ability to empathize, understand perspectives, and build connections, establishing its significance not just on a cognitive level, but on a socio-emotional plane too.
Short-Term Memory vs Long-Term Memory
We tend to compare short-term memory to long-term memory (LTM). LTM is where we store information that we need to recall well into the future, but in order to convert information from STM to LTM, we need to engage in conscious memorization practices such as rote learning.
There are substantial differences between STM and LTM, such as how much can be stored, how the information is forgotten, where it’s stored in the brain, and the accessibility of the memories.
Below is a table summary of the key differences:
|Aspect||Short-Term Memory (STM)||Long-Term Memory (LTM)|
|Duration||Lasts for a few seconds to a minute without rehearsal.||Can last anywhere from minutes to a lifetime (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2009).|
|Capacity||Limited (typically can hold 7±2 items without techniques).||Virtually unlimited.|
|Encoding||Primarily acoustical and visual encoding (Slotnick, 2017).||Semantic encoding (meaning-based), but can also be visual or auditory.|
|Storage||Maintained by rehearsal (Nairne & Neath, 2012).||Consolidation through hippocampus and distributed storage across the cortex (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2009).|
|Forgetting||Due to decay or displacement.||Can be due to interference, lack of retrieval cues, or decay over very long periods (García-Rueda, Poch & Campo, 2022).|
|Neurological Basis||Prefrontal cortex plays a major role (Slotnick, 2017).||Involves various parts of the brain, notably the hippocampus for consolidation.|
|Type of Information Stored||Information currently being processed (like a phone number you just heard).||More permanent information like facts, skills, and experiences (see: semantic memory).|
|Dependency||Sensitive to interruption and interference.||Once stored, it’s relatively resistant to interference, but retrieval can be influenced by cues and contexts.|
|Accessibility||Rapid and immediate access (Nairne & Neath, 2012).||Might require cues or triggers, and can sometimes be difficult to retrieve.|
See Also: Examples of Long-Term Memory
Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1971). The control processes of short-term memory. Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences, Stanford University.
Baddeley, A.D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G.H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 8, pp. 47–89). New York: Academic Press.
Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W., & Anderson, A. C. (2009). Memory. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2020). Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook. Taylor & Francis.
García-Rueda, L., Poch, C., & Campo, P. (2022). Forgetting Details in Visual Long-Term Memory: Decay or Interference? Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 16, 887321.
Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The psychological review, 63, 81-97.
Nairne, J. S., & Neath, I. (2012). Sensory and working memory. In Weiner, I. B. (Ed.). Handbook of Psychology, Experimental Psychology. London: Wiley.
Slotnick, S. (2017). Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]