Beyond Short-term and Long-term Memory

The average person probably has a very simplistic view of memory, along the lines of, “I get information, and then I remember it, and I know what it is.” However, as psychologists, we know that memory, as shrouded in mystery as it is, is a very complex set of processes. Most people have heard of “short term” and “long term” memory, but a majority of people who do not work with brains or memory probably do not know that long term memory is further divided into “explicit” and “implicit” memory. To delve even deeper, they can both be divided further into “episodic” and “semantic” for explicit, as well as “priming,” “procedural,” and “conditioning” for implicit. How are these distinctions made, though, and how do they affect the average person? To help clarify, the differences between short term and long term, between explicit and implicit, and between episodic and semantic will be explained in the following paragraphs.

To begin with, the biggest distinction between short and long term memory, as implied by their names, is that short term memory works with memory for a short amount of time, whereas long term memory works with memory for significantly greater lengths of time. Another significant division is that they are physically located in two different sections of the brain. However, this is not to say that any one mental process is located in any one part of the brain, but only in a general sense. We can clearly see this difference when people damage certain parts of their brain; patients who lose parts their hippocampus lose the ability to form new long term memories while still being able to work with their short term processes; people with other brain damage have suffered the inverse, not being able to use short term correctly, but having fine long term retention. The final distinguishing factor between short and long term memory is exactly how they process and then code information. Short term memory has to keep specifics, albeit for a very short period of time, for example, “The pizza place’s number is 777-7777.” Long term memory, because it has to keep the information so much longer, keeps general information, for example, “The pizza place is located around the corner.”

As previously discussed, long term memory is further divided into two more categories. Explicit, or “declarative” memory is the memory that you can consciously recall from your past, such as “I got a new bike last week.” Implicit, or “non-declarative” memory is the opposite, you cannot consciously recall it, such as the ability to actually ride a bike. The long term information you can consciously recall is again divided into two more sections: episodic and semantic. There are two primary distinctions between the two. The first, much like long and short term memory, is there physical location. When doctors take brain scans of people while using their episodic, and then semantic memories the mental processes activate different areas of the brain. The second main difference is how they work. Episodic memory is the ability to remember specific events (or episodes), for example, “I was sitting in class working when two planes hit the Twin Towers.” Semantic memory is the ability to recall specific facts, or pieces of information, for example, “Two planes hit the Twin Towers in 2001.”

In conclusion, the average person may not know about explicit memory, or episodic memory, but they rely on it heavily, and would be very thankful that they didn’t have one impaired. Without the differences between short and long term memory, we would have to either, remember every single insignificant detail that we’ve ever seen, to the point of insanity, or live in the moment, never knowing past experiences or past mistakes. Without both explicit and implicit memory, we wouldn’t be able to separate our accessible knowledge, and our basic understanding of how doing any task at all works. As you can see, much like with any other field of work, there are processes developing in the background that help us daily, that the average person may never learn about.

Source: Cognitive Psychology 3rd edition, by E. Bruce Goldstein.

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