What is memory and how does it work?

Ok, so in my last few blogs I have covered what affects memory and how to boost memory but I have not covered what memory is and how it works. So that is what I will cover in this blog…

What is memory?

Memory is the process by which infromation is encoded, stored and retrieved. Encoding is the process by which information is transferred from the environment into the brain, for eample when you see a picture of an animal you have not seen before and there is a caption telling you what the animal is. This information is being encoded. Storage is the process where information is kept for recall at a later time, so if you were to see the animal without the caption then you will be able to recall what it was called. Retrieval is the actual recall of the infoprmation from short or long term memory.


This is a blobfish.

If you think about all of the worrds you know in all of the different languages you have come into contact with (For me I not only know English fluently but I know words in Welsh, French, Spanish and even a few Polish and Swahili ones too), as well as all of the words we know, we know their meanings, we know directions to places, peoples names and things about them, we know a lot about Psychology (hopefully) and about all of the other subjects we have been taught until out lives now. Memory is a huge store and the amount we can store is constantly being researched and updated. This research by MIT shows just how much the human memory can do http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2008/vision-memory-0908.html.

How does memory work?

Atkinson & Shiffrin (1968) put forward the Multi-store model of memory.

As you can see from the image above the multi-store model contains three stores; sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. Sensory memory is when a stimuli is detected by one of the senses, for example, visually. This stores the information only for enough time to interpret the stimuli. If this stimuli is not attended to then it decays straight away, leaving the sensory memory. If the stimuli is attended to then it will enter the short-term memory store. In this store the information if only kept for as long as it is thought about. The capacity of short-term memory is 7+/- 2 items (Miller, 1956). Once something else has been thought about the previous information is lost, that is unless the information is rehersed. If it is rehersed then it will then enter the next store which is long-term memory. From this store information can be retrieved and brought back to the short-term memory store to be used at a later date.

To use this in education the teachers can try to make sure that the students are always paying attention, and by rehersing the information so that it is transferred to long-term memory. The teacher can ask for answers (testing students informally) to go over what they have been studying so that they can prevent the decay of the information (McDaniel, Anderson, Derbish & Morrisette, 2007).

Badelly and Hitch, (1974) put forward the working memory model.

As you can see from the image above this is a more complex model than the mulit-store model of memory (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968). There are three main components of the working memory model; the phonological loop, the visuo-spacial sketchpad and the central executive. The phonological loop is the ‘inner voice’ of a person, this is where information can be rehersed, for example, when you are actively thinking about something or trying to remeber it, like a phone number. Rehersal of the information helps prevent it from immediate decay. The visuo-spacial scratchpad is the ‘inner eye’, this is where visual information from the environment is stored, for example, you may be able to visualise the blobfish you saw earlier in my blog and you may be able to recall certain features that it had. The central executive is the ‘main controller’, this is where all of the information is controlled and information can be passed and retrieved from the other stores. So although the information about the blobfish is stored in your visuo-spacial scratchpad, you need the central executive to select the information and retrieve it for you. In 2000 Baddelly added a fourth component to this model of working memory, he added an episodic buffer. The episodic buffer allows the information on the other stores to be linked together so that we are able to form knowledge bases about the look of an object and the sound, for example, we know what a dog looks like and what it sounds like.

3 thoughts on “What is memory and how does it work?

  1. Your blog was interesting to read, who doesn’t like a good topic on memory? The multistore model (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968) and the working memory model (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974) have important implications in education.

    You noted that teachers can use these theories through applying rehearsal to ensure that the information is transferred to long-term memory without decay. Rundus (1971) found evidence supporting this notion, with research finding that participants were able to recall more words if these words had been rehearsed. Furthermore, in support of Jesse’s constant testing in stats during first year (Wolf, 2007) conducted a meta-analysis finding that the research in this area provides significant evidence for the notion that rehearsal and testing results in enhanced recall. This research provides evidence for the existence of the multistore model of memory and suggests that students should actively rehearse information and test themselves in order to recall information well.

    Another point you noted is the fact that individuals can only process a certain amount of information; it is therefore vital that students should refrain from ‘cramming’ before exams and instead learn the basic information and then elaborate (Craik & Lockhart, 1972). Evidence supporting this idea comes from Jones, Ollendick, McLaughlin, and Williams (1988) who found that participants who engaged in elaborative rehearsal performed better than participants who engaged in rehearsal alone.

    Clearly, models of memory can be applied to the learning and recall of information. However, one needs to question whether this really is learning or just memorising. In spite of this, unfortunately the current education system is based on memorising rather than learning so why not exploit this method and use all of these strategies to try and enhance the recall of information?


    Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. New York: Academic Press.

    Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. New York: Academic Press.

    Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 11(6), 671-684.

    Jones, R.T., Ollendick, T.H., McLaughlin, K.J., & Williams, C.E. (1988). Elaborative and behavioral rehearsal in the acquisition of fire emergency skills and the reduction of fear of fire. Behavior Therapy, 20(1), 93-101. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(89)801020-0

    Rundus, D. (1971). Analysis of rehearsal process in free recall. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 89(1), 63-77. doi: 10.1037/h0031185

    Wolf, P. J. (2007). Academic improvement through regular assessment. Peabody Journal of Education, 82(4), 690-702. doi: 10.1037/h0031185

  2. Different models of memory are important when trying to come up with techniques to improve memory. For example, both the multistore model (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968) and the working memory model (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974) recognise the role of rehearsal in memory. Dark and Loftus (1976) found that participants who were prevented from rehearsing information recalled less than participant who were allowed to recall information. These memory models and this research suggest that rehearsal is an important part of memory, so in terms of education; students should be encouraged to rehearse information so they are more likely to be able to recall it. One piece of research I found interesting was by Ornstein and Liberty (1973); they found that older students performed better than younger students in a task involving rehearsing a list of words out loud then trying to recall them. This research suggests that there are age differences in the effects of rehearsal on memory, so maybe schools should be aware of this before applying techniques in classrooms that are focused on rehearsal.

  3. Pingback: Synthesis blog | psychofed

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