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What is Short-Term Memory?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 28, 2024
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When a person doesn’t have a pen and is given a phone number they must immediately call, can they remember that phone number (usually 7 digits), for more than a few seconds? It can be a difficult thing remembering the digits in order and reserving them in what is called the short-term memory, which may also be termed active or working memory. Most people given the phone number would be able to remember at least 5 numbers, a lot of people can recall all 7 of them, and a few could remember an even longer number. As the seconds pass though, the memory wouldn’t be maintained, unless the person kept the number in memory by repeating it pretty regularly.

Most models of the ways humans remember posit that there are three memory systems. Though short-term memory is short in duration, lasting about 20 seconds for most things, there is an even shorter memory process, called sensory memory. This takes in visual and audio (seen and heard) information and keeps a copy of it. However we tend not to remember any of this, since these copies last for less than a second.

Quite in contrast to short-term memory and sensory memory is long-term memory. This stores all the things we have remembered, and according to many psychologists, many things we don’t know we’ve remembered. It’s a huge network or data storage unit, constantly collecting more information as people progress through life. When people want to convert a short-term memory into a longer term one, it usually has to be given specific meaning, or it doesn’t remain.

The reason the example in the first paragraph was used is because studies on short-term memory are often conducted by asking people to remember number digits. In the 1950s, and since then, it’s been shown repeatedly that people reliably can remember 7 plus or minus 2 digits. Those who seem have to have the best short-term memory of digits may also have better long–term memory of digits, and they do this by a process called chunking. Instead of remembering a seven-digit sequence, they tend to remember a three and four digit sequence. People who can remember telephone numbers, social security numbers and the like usually have evolved some process of chunking the numbers so they are easy.

The distinction between short-term and long-term memory is an important one and can help people learn and memorize. It really lets people know that learning style has to encompass a way to make things meaningful so that memories move to the area of the brain where they will be remembered for longer than a few seconds. There are many different learning strategies that can assist in this respect.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By SilentBlue — On Feb 05, 2011


This is true, but the greatest memory on the planet is attainable by practice. This is not "photographic" per se, but it is as close as you can get to being that way. Some people are able to accomplish incredible mnemonic feats which seem impossible to some.

By FitzMaurice — On Feb 03, 2011


Photographic memory is an urban legend. Even the best memories are flawed and unable to record every detail of a given photo. This is why dreams are sub-par reality. The projective ability of our mind can only go so far, and we cannot maintain detail in full.

By Tufenkian925 — On Jan 31, 2011

One of the best ways to improve short-term memory is to develop a few tactics and to practice them. Practice makes perfect, and this applies to memory, just like anything else. If you exercise the memory sections of your brain on a regular basis, they will improve over time, to a level where you will be considered to have a photographic memory.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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