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Memory is a critical part of all cognitive processes, because it is involved whenever we maintain information over time. You can maintain this information for less than a second or as long as a lifetime. For example, you use memory to store the beginning of a word until you hear the end of the word. You also use memory to recall your own name.


During the 1960s, psychologists became increasingly excited about information processing approaches to memory. A number of different models of memory were proposed that outlined separate memory stores for different kinds of memory. These multi store models provided the first systematic account of the structures and processes that form the memory system. The model that is most often referred to and therefore sometimes called the modal model was one proposed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin (1968).

Description of the Atkinson-Shiffrin Model

Sensory Memory Stimuli from the environment first enter sensory memory. Sensory memory is a large capacity store system that records information from each of the senses with reasonable accuracy. Although touch, smell and taste can be represented in sensory memory, cognitive psychologists are especially likely to study iconic memory (visual sensory memory) and echoic memory (auditory sensory memory). In any case, information in sensory memory decays rapidly. Short-Term Memory Atkinson and Shiffrin model proposes that material from sensory memory then passes on to short-term memory. Short-term memory (abbreviated LTM) contains only the small amount of information that we are actively using. Atkinson and Shiffrin proposed that verbal information in STM is encoded acoustically, in terms of its sounds. Memories in STM are fragile though not as fragile as those in sensory memory and then can be lost from memory within about 30 seconds unless they are somehow repeated.

Long-Term Memory According to the model, material finally passes from short-term memory to long-term memory. Long-term memory (abbreviated LTM) has a large capacity and contains memories that are decades old, in addition to memories that arrived several minutes ago. Atkinson and Shiffrin proposed that information in LTM is encoded semantically, in terms of its meaning. Memories in LTM are relatively permanent, and they are not likely to be lost. Information in LTM can pass back into STM when we want to actively work with that information again. Control Processes Atkinson and Shiffrin also proposed control processes, which are strategies that people use flexibly and voluntarily, depending on the nature of the material and their own personal preferences. Control processes can operate in other ways in memory. For instance, people can decide whether they want to fill their short-term memory with material that needs to be remembered or to leave work space to think about something else. Furthermore, they can decide whether to use a particular memory strategy. Kind of control process One important kind of control process is rehearsal, or the silent repetition of information. According to the model, information that is rehearsed frequently and kept for a long time in STM is more likely to be transferred to LTM.

Research on the Atkinson-Shiffrin Model

Controversy about model The concept of sensory memory has created some controversy. The current evidence suggests the possibility of at least two kinds of iconic and echoic memory. Some theorists have questioned whether the concept of iconic memory is even worth retaining. However, any controversy surrounding sensory memory has been greatly overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the distinction between STM and LTM. The consensus is that some research suggests that STM is really different from LTM, but the evidence is not overwhelming. The issue, then, is whether we have enough evidence to support a model with two separate memory strategies, a STM and a LTM.

TWO LISTS SIMILAR TO THOSE USED BY KINTSCH AND BUSCHIKE (1969) LIST 1 SEMANTICALLY SIMILAR PAIRS Angry Pleased Forest Sofa Ocean Woods Carpets Sea Happy Rug Mad Couch LIST 2 ACOUSTICALLY SIMILAR PAIRS Tacks So Buy Owe Tied Sew Their Tax By There Oh Tide

Kintsch and Buschkes Research: Kintsch and Buschke (1969) asked people to learn 16 English words in order. Their study focused upon one distinction that material in STM is coded in terms of its acoustic characteristics, whereas material in LTM is coded in terms of its semantic characteristics. The first study examined whether items at the beginning of the list which were presumably in LTM would be influenced by semantic factors. The second study examined whether items at the end of the list which were presumably in STM would be influenced by acoustic factors.

Experiment: The first list contains pairs of synonyms. After the material has been presented, the experimenters supplied one word from the list, for example, pleased. The participants were requested to supply the next word in the list. The correct answer would be forest. However, suppose that a person confuses the word pleased with its synonym happy. Then this person might supply the word rug as the answer, because rug follows happy. They found that items at the beginning of the list produced a number of semantic confusions than items at the end of the list. This result suggests that beginning items are coded in terms of their meaning in LTM. The second list contains pairs of homonyms (similar in each other in sound). If a person confuses two words that sound the same, then he or she might see the word so and respond there, because so was confused with sew, which appeared before there. They found that acoustic confusions were more likely at the end of the list. This result suggests that ending items are coded in terms of their sound in STM.

Evidence against Atkinson-Shiffrin the Model

In psychology, distinction often seems crisp (clear) when they are first proposed. As more research and theory are produced the distinctions seems to be blur. For example, one crisp distinction used to be that STM was acoustically coded, whereas LTM was semantically coded. However, more recent research has demonstrated that items in STM can also be coded in terms of their meaning. In addition, theorists pointed out that we often have a clear representation of the sound of an item in LTM; for example, the sound of a song may be encoded more clearly than its meaning. Experimental evidence: Experimental evidence also contradicts other feathers of the Atkinson-Shiffrin model. For example, the model proposes that information rehearsed for a long time in STM is more likely to be transferred to LTM.

The neuroscience approach to memory has provided additional evidence for the Atkinson-Shiffrin model, especially through case studies of people with lesions. The case of first man: The most dramatic case was that of H.M. In an attempt to cure H.Ms serious epilepsy, neurosurgeons removed portions of his temporal lobes and his hippocampus. The

operation successfully cured the epilepsy, but it left him with a severe kind of memory loss. H.M can accurately recall events that occurred before his surgery and his STM is also normal. For example, he cannot recall more than 6 numbers in order, suggesting that his STM is normal but he lacks the ability to transfer material from STM to LTM. The case of second man: The case of second man K.F suggests roughly the opposite symptoms. K.F had an accident, which damaged a portion of the left side of his cerebral cortex. His long term retention is normal, but his STM is severely limited. For example, Philip Johnson Laird (1988) reports on his own interactions with K.F. Johnson Laird asked K.F to repeat the sentence: The dog bit the man and the man died. K.F repeated the sentence perfectly. Then Johnson Laird asked him to repeat a second sentence: The man, the dog bit, died. This sentence was shorter but actually placed a greater burden on STM. Results: The fact is that H.M has normal STM and abnormal LTM, whereas K.F has abnormal STM and normal STM. This study is often cited as strong evidence for the distinction between the two kinds of memory. The Atkinson-Shiffrin model proposes that information must pass through STM before long-term learning occurs. If K.F has abnormal STM, how could his LTM be normal?

The current status of the Atkinson-Shiffrin Model

The research on the distinction between STM and LTM reveals mixed results. Some studies support the distinction. Other research suggests that memory processes are similar. Many current cognitive theories still include a basic distinction between STM and LTM (Estes, 1991).

Most models acknowledge that the Atkinson-Shiffrin model is too simple. For example, some proposals suggest that STM is not a single storehouse with a limited capacity. Instead, it is probably a collection of temporary storehouses.