Memory storage allows us to hold onto information for a very long duration of time—even a lifetime.
Memories are not stored as exact replicas of experiences; instead, they are modified and reconstructed during retrieval and recall. Memory storage is achieved through the process of encoding, through either short- or long-term memory. During the process of memory encoding, information is filtered and modified for storage in short-term memory. Information in short- term memory deteriorates constantly; however, if the information is deemed important or useful, it is transferred to long-term memory for extended storage. Because long-term memories must be held for indefinite periods of time, they are stored, or consolidated, in a way that optimizes space for other memories. As a result, long-term memory can hold much more information than short-term memory, but it may not be immediately accessible.
The way long-term memories are stored is similar to a digital compression. This means that information is filed in a way that takes up the least amount of space, but in the process, details of the memory may be lost and not easily recovered. Because of this consolidation process, memories are more accurate the sooner they are retrieved after being stored. As the retention interval between encoding and retrieval of the memory lengthens, the accuracy of the memory decreases.
Short-term memory is the ability to hold information for a short duration of time (on the order of seconds). In the process of encoding, information enters the brain and can be quickly forgotten if it is not stored further in the short-term memory. George A. Miller suggested that the capacity of short-term memory storage is approximately seven items plus or minus two, but modern researchers are showing that this can vary depending on variables like the stored items’ phonological properties. When several elements (such as digits, words, or pictures) are held in short-term memory simultaneously, their representations compete with each other for recall, or degrade each other. Thereby, new content gradually pushes out older content, unless the older content is actively protected against interference by rehearsal or by directing attention to it.
Information in the short-term memory is readily accessible, but for only a short time. It continuously decays, so in the absence of rehearsal (keeping information in short-term memory by mentally repeating it) it can be forgotten.
In contrast to short-term memory, long-term memory is the ability to hold semantic information for a prolonged period of time. Items stored in short-term memory move to long- term memory through rehearsal, processing, and use. The capacity of long-term memory storage is much greater than that of short-term memory, and perhaps unlimited. However, the duration of long-term memories is not permanent; unless a memory is occasionally recalled, it may fail to be recalled on later occasions. This is known as forgetting.
Long-term memory storage can be affected by traumatic brain injury or lesions. Amnesia, a deficit in memory, can be caused by brain damage. Anterograde amnesia is the inability to store new memories; retrograde amnesia is the inability to retrieve old memories. These types of amnesia indicate that memory does have a storage process.
Every experience we have changes our brains. That may seem like a bold, even strange, claim at first, but it’s true. We encode each of our experiences within the structures of the nervous system, making new impressions in the process—and each of those impressions involves changes in the brain. Psychologists (and neurobiologists) say that experiences leave memory traces , or engrams (the two terms are synonyms). Memories have to be stored somewhere in the brain, so in order to do so, the brain biochemically alters itself and its neural tissue. Just like you might write yourself a note to remind you of something, the brain “writes” a memory trace, changing its own physical composition to do so. The basic idea is that events (occurrences in our environment) create engrams through a process of consolidation : the neural changes that occur after learning to create the memory trace of an experience. Although neurobiologists are concerned with exactly what neural processes change when memories are created, for psychologists, the term memory trace simply refers to the physical change in the nervous system (whatever that may be, exactly) that represents our experience.
Although the concept of engram or memory trace is extremely useful, we shouldn’t take the term too literally. It is important to understand that memory traces are not perfect little packets of information that lie dormant in the brain, waiting to be called forward to give an accurate report of past experience. Memory traces are not like video or audio recordings, capturing experience with great accuracy; as discussed earlier, we often have errors in our memory, which would not exist if memory traces were perfect packets of information. Thus, it is wrong to think that remembering involves simply “reading out” a faithful record of past experience. Rather, when we remember past events, we reconstruct them with the aid of our memory traces—but also with our current belief of what happened. For example, if you were trying to recall for the police who started a fight at a bar, you may not have a memory trace of who pushed whom first. However, let’s say you remember that one of the guys held the door open for you. When thinking back to the start of the fight, this knowledge (of how one guy was friendly to you) may unconsciously influence your memory of what happened in favor of the nice guy. Thus, memory is a construction of what you actually recall and what you believe happened. In a phrase, remembering is reconstructive (we reconstruct our past with the aid of memory traces) not reproductive (a perfect reproduction or recreation of the past).