What Is the Difference Between Short-Term and Long-Term Memory?

Short-term memory is used to remember a number looked up in a telephone book.
Students who cram for a test retain the information in their short-term memory.
Important life moments, such as the birth of a child, are stored in a person's long-term memory.
Looking through old photos will likely trigger long-term memories.
Article Details
  • Written By: E. Reeder
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2014
    Conjecture Corporation
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Short-term and long-term memory, while closely related, have many differences. Long-term memory is used to store information, memories, skill sets and procedural knowledge that can be readily retrieved when needed, both voluntarily and involuntarily. Short-term memory is designed to retain information for a brief period of time, after which it is then either forgotten or stored permanently in long-term memory, based on how actively it is used while in short-term memory.

One difference between these two types of memory is that information stays in short-term memory for only a very short period, while it is retained in long-term memory on a relatively permanent basis. People who cram for a test or exam may find that they can easily remember the information if they have studied it right before the test, but they may find that it has mostly disappeared a few days later. At a party, a person may notice that he cannot recall the name of another guest he has just met, despite being told the name only a few seconds earlier. Memories, skills and information stored in long-term memory, however, may be there for a lifetime.

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Another key difference between short-term and long-term memory is the way in which the information stored in each is accessed. Information in short-term memory is easily accessible because it is temporarily right there, waiting to be used. People use short-term memory to remember things for a short period of time, such as a phone number they have looked up or potential answers to questions on a test for which they have studied at the last minute. They will be able to easily access those types of short-term memories right after they have committed them to memory but may not be able to recall them later if those memories do not make the transition into long-term memory. In long-term memory, memories and information can be accessed in several ways, including simply thinking about them, actively trying to remember them and by a connection that brings them to the surface.

Short-term and long-term memory also differ in the amount of information they can store. Short-term memory typically stores small amounts of information, because the information there is either moved to long-term memory for more permanent storage or lost entirely if not used before it is replaced with other information. While the amount of information that people can store in their short-term and long-term memory varies based on people’s individual abilities, there is an almost endless amount of information that can be stored in people’s long-term memories, especially because information, memories and knowledge accumulate over a person’s lifetime.

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ZipLine
Post 4

Short-term memory is easily forgotten because our brain doesn't "code" it. But it codes long-term memory. Also, there is limited space in our brain for short-term memory like the article said, but we can never run out of space for long-term memory.

My doctor told me however, that it is possible to improve both short-term and long-term memory, especially the latter. If we try to make connections between information, it will be transferred to long-term memory and will stay there longer.

SarahGen
Post 3

@donasmrs-- I'm not sure why it occurs that way but you are right that those with Alzheimer's lose their short-term memory. It's one of the first warning signs of the disease and usually worsens with time. That's why someone with Alzheimer's may not remember his own adult daughter, but remember her as a child.

My great-uncle also had Alzheimer's. I used to visit him on the weekends. Sometimes he remembered me and sometimes he didn't. His short-term memory was very poor. He would tell me a story and then tell it again five minutes later. But like you said, sometimes he remembered other things from a long time ago.

Since long-term memory lasts indefinitely but short-term memory lasts for only a while, I guess the latter is affected first during Alzheimer's.

donasmrs
Post 2

Why is it that those with Alzheimer's often lose short-term memory but retain long-term memory?

My grandmother doesn't remember people she meets five minutes ago but she can remember someone she met briefly in 1975.

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