Most people, if not everybody, are aware of the fact that when we store information, we create memories. Many of us are also aware that there are multiple types of memories: long-term memory and short-term memory. However, did you know that there is a third type of memory that is just as important in our daily lives as the other two? Each type of memory plays a fundamental role in the way we remember, learn, and create. So what exactly is the difference between long-term, short-term, and that mysterious third memory known as working memory? I’m glad you asked!
Short-Term Memory vs Long-Term Memory
Short-term memory differs from long-term memory in two fundamental ways. As its name suggests, short-term memory allows the human brain to keep information in the mind for a very short period of time, such as remembering a phone number long enough until you are able to dial it. The extent of short-term memory lasts within seconds to minutes and then dissipates if effort is not made to retain the information for long-term use. Long-term memory, however, can store vast amounts of information and is usually permanent (nothing lasts forever, alas!). It is responsible for the retention of memories that have to do with life experiences, knowledge about how to perform tasks, and how to properly speak a specific language.
Short-Term Memory vs Working Memory
Working memory allows the manipulation of information and is often interchangeably used with short-term memory, even though the two are very different. Although short-term memory plays a role in working memory, working memory is a theoretical framework of the structure of how memory manipulation works. Working memory is key to learning, as it helps individuals hold on to information long enough to use it. For example, working memory is responsible for many of the skills children use to learn to read. Auditory working memory helps children hold on to the sounds letters make long enough to sound out new words, and visual working memory helps children remember what those words look like so they can recognize them in the future. When working effectively, these skills keep children from having to sound out every word they see. This then helps them read with less hesitation and become fluent readers.
Working Memory and Executive Functioning
Before something is learned, it must pass through working memory. For individuals with executive dysfunction, they are often distracted while performing a task that the information does not pass through working memory due to inattentiveness. For example, they might need to re-read a worksheet three times before the information travels through their working memory, which will help children remember what they are supposed to.
Three Types of Memory
Remember: there is not one, not two, but three types of memory. Short-term memory allows you to remember a specific piece of information for a short amount of time (hence the name). Long-term memory, on the other hand, is responsible for life experiences and is meant to last for extended periods of time. Both of these types of memories help us function in school and work, but it is really with the help of our working memory that we are able to be successful. When we manipulate information in our working memory, we retain information from a previous task or question and use that to solve a new problem or complete a task. Although it might seem overwhelming at times to strengthen all three types of memory, there are many strategies you can use, such as visualization, mnemonics, or chunking. It is important to note that memory works just like any muscle group and has to be attended to regularly in order to see and keep any improvements that have been made.