What Is Short-Term Memory: Definition & Causes for Memory Loss

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Clause

Chris is an educator with a background in psychology and counseling. He also holds a PhD in public affairs, and has worked as a counselor and teacher for community college students for more than 10 years.

Short-term memory has its natural limitations but is an essential process that allows the brain to choose what to do with information received. Learn the definition of short-term memory and the sources and causes short-term memory loss. Updated: 09/12/2021

What Is Short-Term Memory?

If someone told you his or her phone number, would you have much trouble remembering it 25 seconds later if asked to repeat it, even if you never dialed it? Probably not, right? So, how does this happen? The answer is short-term memory.

Short-term memory is the focus of this lesson, but understanding how it fits into the broader concept of memory will help you better understand its specific role. In general, it's widely agreed that there are three main categories or types of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Sensory memory is responsible for transferring environmental information you receive from your five senses to your brain. It then goes to short-term memory where it's available in our consciousness for around 30 seconds. Once in short-term memory, the information is processed by working memory. Working memory is a specialized memory process associated with short-term memory. Since short-term memory involves processing all of the information being supplied by your sensory systems, working memory provides it with the ability to prioritize and process all of the information coming in.

Many people conceptualize working memory as a mental workbench. This is a pretty accurate analogy; information is brought in to short-term memory and must be prioritized and attended to. It's either put to use within a few seconds, ignored altogether, or encoded and sent to long-term memory. Long-term memory allows us to hold on to and use information for days, months, or years, which is much different from short-term memory, which is intended to allow for the quick use of received information.

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Sources of Short-Term Memory Loss

Since the information sent to short-term memory is only available for around 30 seconds unless something is done with it, attention plays a key role in maximizing short-term memory, as well as in memory problems. Impaired attention can be the result of brain damage. Common brain diseases, like Alzheimer's disease or dementia, by their nature can cause serious cognitive impairments, one of which is impaired attention capacity. Additionally, sometimes things like sleep deprivation, poor physical health, or psychoactive drugs can interfere with our ability to attend to new information and reduce our ability to recall information within a few seconds of being exposed to it.

If you remember the mental workbench analogy, then you can understand how it's difficult for short-term memory to make use of the information received if a lack of attention is reducing the brain's ability to recognize and focus on the information coming in. For instance, if someone is telling you his or her phone number, but due to problems associated with attention you don't even realize that he or she is speaking to you, it'll be hard to make use of that information. If attention is impaired, then the phone number is never even recognized by the listener.

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