Atkinson & Shiffrin's Modal Model of Memory

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Did you know that there are three distinct memory systems according to Atkinson & Shiffrin's Modal Model of Memory? Learn more about the three distinct systems, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Introduction to the Model

Lisa is a psychologist interested in memory. More specifically, Lisa would like to know how memories are formed. During her studies, Lisa comes across the Atkinson-Shiffrin model of memory. So what exactly does this model propose?

The Atkinson-Shiffrin modal model of memory was first developed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin in 1968. Atkinson and Shiffrin believed that once information enters the brain, it must be either stored or maintained and that the information which is stored goes into three distinct memory systems: the sensory register, short-term memory, and long-term memory. Let's look at each of these components more carefully.

Sensory Register

The sensory register is the first memory system that information passes through. The sensory register perceives and retains information that is received via the five senses for a very short amount of time, i.e. a few seconds. Though we have sensory registers for all five senses, only two have been well-studied. Research has primarily focused on iconic memory, (visual memory) and echoic memory, (auditory memory). It's estimated that we can hold information in iconic memory for less than one second, while we can keep information in echoic memory for up to five seconds. We can think of sensory registry as a holding bin that keeps information until we decide which items we want to pay attention to. Most information that is not attended to is forgotten. Paying attention allows us to move information from sensory register to short-term memory.

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory is where we keep the content of our current thought. We can think of short-term memory as where we store information that we can actively work with and use. It's estimated that we can hold information in short-term memory between 18 and 20 seconds, though there are techniques that we can use to increase this. For example, many people remember phone numbers by repeating them over and over in their heads until they can write them down or dial them. By continually repeating the numbers, you are rehearsing, which extends the length of time that you can recall the numbers. This brings up another point: the more that we repeat or use information, the more likely it is to move into long-term memory.

There are limitations to how much information we can keep in short -erm memory. In 1956, a cognitive psychologist named George Miller published a paper called 'The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,' in which he claimed that we can only hold between 5 and 9 items in short-term memory at any given time. There are different techniques that we can use in order to increase this capacity. For example, instead of remembering a phone number as 10 separate digits (i.e. 5-5-5-3-1-4-7-8-8-9), we could break the numbers into chunks (i.e. 555-314-7889), which would allow us to remember the number as three items instead of ten.

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