Short-term memory is the memory we use to temporary store information with the intention of using it in the immediate future only.
Our short-term memories have two limiting and defining features:
- Limited capacity: Miller (1956) famously argued that most people’s short-term memory can only contain 7 items at once (plus or minus two). This has been backed-up by follow-up studies.
- Limited duration: Atkinson & Shiffrin (1971) found that we can only hold items in our short-term memory for about 15-30 seconds unless we use rehearsal methods such as maintenance rehearsal.
Short-term memory can be broken down into several types based upon the senses use to retrieve data from our environment (Eysenck & Keane, 2020). These types include acoustic memory, visual memory, spatial memory, tactile memory, olfactory memory, and gustatory memory.
Types of Short-Term Memory
1. Acoustic Memory
Acoustic memory refers to the recollection of sounds, particularly the brief storage of these sounds in our cognitive system.
Acoustic memory functions as a repository for auditory information. Essentially, acoustic encoding provides a temporal reserve for sounds that we hear, enabling the processing of sonic details (Pérez-González et al., 2022).
As defined by Ortiz (1997):
“…the term “acoustic memory” is defined or meant as a catch phrase to encompass all of the sounds, musical or otherwise, stored in our memories.”
This auditory perception involves storing verbal content or musical compositions within the short-term memory for a limited time period.
The role of acoustic memory extends beyond mere perception, as it is critical to many cognitive functions, including speech understanding, language learning, and even music appreciation.
Example of Acoustic Memory
When learning a new word in a foreign language, the sonic imprint of the word (its phonetic formation) lingers in your acoustic memory while you process it, translate it or associate it with imagery. Later, you might not remember the word – it might have been cleared from your short-term acoustic memory – but for about 30 seconds, the imprint in acoustic memory will serve a critical purpose in the learning process.
2. Visual Memory
Visual memory relates to the recall of visual stimuli, including shapes, images, and colors retained briefly within our cognitive system (Schurgin, 2018).
Visual encoding enables us to remember and mentally recreate the visuals around us.
This memory form is indispensable for tasks like reading, writing, and navigation, allowing us to process visual cues from our environment and make sense of the world around us.
Interestingly, while we tend to consider short-term memory as capable of holding 7 items at once, research finds that short-term visual memory often can only hold 4 temporary items at any one time (Endress & Potter, 2014).
Example of Visual Memory
For instance, if you look at a piece of art in a museum briefly and then close your eyes, the image that continues to appear in your mind is due to visual memory. This short-term recall allows you to discuss and describe the artwork even when you’re not directly looking at it.
3. Spatial Memory
Spatial memory pertains to the storage and recall of spatial information, such as the locations or layout of objects within an environment (Olton, 2018).
Essentially, this form of memory allows us to navigate the world, recognizing familiar places and finding our way in new surroundings. It plays a crucial role in numerous greatly varied tasks, ranging from reaching for a cup on a table to remembering where we parked our cars in a multi-story parking lot.
Scholars have studied, for example, how mice use short-term spatial memory to navigate mazes and solve maze puzzles (Olton, 2018)
Spatial memory combines visual and proprioceptive (relative position of body parts) cues, creating a cognitive map of our spatial surroundings. These cognitive maps help us to move accurately in our environment without needing to think about each step or action.
Example of Spatial Memory
For instance, when you navigate through your house in the dark, you’re relying on spatial memory. Your brain has created and stored a mental layout of your home – rooms, furniture, and any potential obstacles – enabling you to move around even without the support of visual cues.
4. Tactile Memory
Tactile memory refers to the retention and subsequent recall of information related to touch or physical sensations (Khan, 2012).
It’s a niche, yet vital form of short-term memory, playing an essential role in our interaction with the world. Tactile memory allows us to learn and adapt to new physical experiences, and is vital for deadblind people to interact with the world (Khan, 2012).
Our tactile memories are involved in a vast array of tasks, from simple actions like tying a shoelace to complex ones such as learning a new musical instrument. By storing and retrieving information on how objects feel, we are able to learn skills, navigate our environments, and understand the world around us.
Example of Tactile Memory
Consider the act of typing on a keyboard – when you’re skilled at touch-typing, your fingers seem to know exactly where the keys are without you needing to look. This automatic recognition and response is due to your tactile memory, which has stored the sensation of the keys and their locations, enabling skilled and rapid typing.
Read Also: Tactile Learning Guide
5. Olfactory Memory
Olfactory memory refers to the short-term memory of smells, and is surprisingly useful at stimulating emotional responses (Sullivan et al., 2015).
One of our five senses, smell, or olfaction, is closely linked with our memory centers, leading to our capability to remember and recognize different odors. Olfactory memory can be powerful and immediate (Sullivan et al., 2015)
Although it might seem less critical than other types of short-term memory in our visually-dominated world, olfactory memory plays a key role in daily life experiences. It allows us to enjoy and understand the world in a much deeper and more nuanced way, triggering memories and emotional responses that are uniquely personal.
Example of Olfactory Memory
An example of this is how certain scents, like fresh-baked cookies or a specific perfume, can instantly transport you back to childhood or evoke a vivid memory of a person or place. This strong connection between smell and memory is an example of your olfactory memory at work, demonstrating its potent role in our cognitive function.
6. Gustatory Memory
Gustatory memory is attributed to the recall of tastes, allowing us to remember different flavors we have experienced.
Taste, alongside smell, forms an integral part of our sensory experience. Gustatory memory plays an essential role in our eating habits and preferences, contributing to our overall health and well-being. It helps us to recognize and enjoy the array of foods we consume, and it also acts as a protective mechanism, allowing us to identify and avoid potentially harmful substances.
This short-term memory type gives us the ability to differentiate between various flavor profiles, making dining a multi-layered experience. By recalling previous experiences with certain foods, we make decisions regarding what we eat and how we perceive taste.
Example of Gustatory Memory
Consider the experience of tasting a particular food, such as an apple. Later, even without the apple in front of you, you are capable of recalling and describing its sweet yet slightly tart taste. This ability is due to your gustatory memory, which has stored the taste information for future recall.
Read Next: Types of Long-Term Memory
Short-Term Memory vs Working Memory
The term ‘short-term memory’ was critiqued in an influential paper by Baddeley and Hitch (1974), who argued for a new model termed working memory.
To them, short-term memory defines the ability to retain a small amount of information for a brief period, typically a few seconds to roughly a minute. It’s like a temporary storage area where information stays while it is under consideration or being used in some thought process.
On the other hand, working memory is a cognitive system that allows for the manipulation and processing of information held in short-term memory. It does more than just store information; it actively works with that information. Here, data can be manipulated, organized, and employed for cognitive tasks such as problem-solving, comprehension, and learning.
As Chai et al. argue, working memory is more active and goal-directed in nature:
“The general consensus regarding working memory supports the idea that working memory is extensively involved in goal-directed behaviors in which information must be retained and manipulated to ensure successful task execution” (Chai et al., 2018, p. 1).
So, to many contemporary cognitive psychologists, the term ‘working memory’ is more useful as it helps us to explain how we don’t just store short-term information, but rather, we manipulate and use it while temporarily storing it.
Summary of Key points
- Short-term memory refers to the memory system used to retain information temporarily.
- It can hold about 7 pieces of information at once, plus or minus two.
- It can hold a piece of information for about 15-30 seconds.
- Types of working memory are linked to the senses: auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile, gustatory, and spatial.
- Today, the term ‘working memory’ is often used instead, to refer to the fact that we don’t just hold short-term information, but also actively work with it and manipulate it in a goal-directed manner.
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.
Chai, W. J., Abd Hamid, A. I., & Abdullah, J. M. (2018). Working memory from the psychological and neurosciences perspectives: A review. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 401.
Endress, A. D., & Potter, M. C. (2014). Large capacity temporary visual memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 548.
Khan, A. U. (2012). Clinical Disorders of Memory. New York: Springer US.
Olton, D. S. (2018). Characteristics of spatial memory. In Cognitive processes in animal behavior (pp. 341-373). Routledge.
Ortiz, J. M. (1997). The Tao of Music: Sound Psychology. New York: Red Wheel Weiser.
Pérez-González, D., Merchán, M. A., Ryugo, D. K., & Skoe, E. (2022). Descending control in the auditory system. Frontiers Media SA.
Reisberg, D. (2013). The Oxford handbook of cognitive psychology. Oxford University Press.
Schurgin, M. W. (2018). Visual memory, the long and the short of it: A review of visual working memory and long-term memory. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 80, 1035-1056.
Sullivan, R. M., Wilson, D. A., Ravel, N., & Mouly, A. M. (2015). Olfactory memory networks: from emotional learning to social behaviors. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 9, 36.
Terry, W. S. (2017). Learning and memory: Basic principles, processes, and procedures. Routledge.
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]