How Your Brain Works: Memory Fundamentals

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Your brain’s memory system consists of four subsystems:

  • Sensory Register
  • Long-Term Memory
  • Working Memory
  • Central Executive

Before describing how they work together to form long-term memories, let’s discuss each subsystem in turn.

Sensory Register


The Sensory Register contains all that sensation that come from your environment through your senses of vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

It’s contents are always fleeting… consisting of what you are experiencing at this very moment.

Long-Term Memory


Long-term Memory (LTM) is where all of your learning, both conscious and unconscious, is stored.

To a great extent, you are your long-term memory patterns: your rules, beliefs, hopes, expectations, fears, regrets, dreams, preconceptions, biases, misconceptions, prejudices, self-concept, likes, dislikes, knowledge, talents, skills, and habits. These long-term memory patterns have a profound influence on many things: where you “choose” to focus your attention, what you think is important, how you interpret new information, how you react to events, how you remember things, what you think about others, what scares you, what you are ready to learn… to name but a few. Can you think of some more?

Your long-term memory has essentially unlimited capacity, but it can absorb only so much so fast. You need to give it time to learn, as we will see later.  And, because long-term memories are very hard to erase, we need to be very careful what we store there.

Working Memory

Working Memory is where thinking occurs. It is used to temporarily store and manipulate information and is filled by simply paying attention to “Something” or “Somethings”.

  • “Something” can be anything: a face, a sound, a sensation, an idea, a shape, a texture, a word, a number, a color, a thought, a picture, a visual memory, an equation, an emotion, a concept, a suggestion… anything.
  • “Something” can come from two sources: your sensory register or your own long-term memory.
  • It is possible to pay attention to multiple “somethings” if they do not interfere with each other or overwhelm your capacity to pay attention.
  • Working memory is the gateway to long-term memory.


The contents of your working memory is nothing more than what you are paying attention to at the moment. Once you stop paying attention to something, it quickly fades away. This is why working memory is also called Short-Term Memory (STM). Unlike Long-Term Memory, the capacity of your working memory is extremely limited… not much more than the ability to remember a seven digit phone number.

Central Executive

The Central Executive tells the working memory what to pay attention to and initiates and terminates mental operations performed in working memory. These operations include manipulating, relating, storing, and retrieving information.


LEARN MORE… The Learning Process


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