Your brain’s memory system consists of four sub–systems…
- Sensory Register
- Long-Term Memory
- Working Memory
- Central Executive
Before describing how they work together to create long-term memories, let’s discuss each subsystem in turn…
The Sensory Register contains all the sensations that come from your environment through your five senses: vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch…
The contents of the sensory register are always fleeting, consisting only of what you are experiencing at this very moment.
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, 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 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.
Two noteworthy components of working memory are the Phonological Loop and Visio-spatial Sketchpad…
The Phonological Loop is like a virtual sound recording device with a storage capacity of around two seconds, just long enough to rehearse the seven-digit phone number mentioned above.
Similarly, the Visio-spatial Sketchpad is like a virtual image viewer that allows you to manipulate and relate visual information.
The Central Executive tells your working memory what to pay attention to and initiates and terminates all the mental operations performed in your working memory. These operations include manipulating, relating, storing, and retrieving information.