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What Is the Connection between Long-Term and Working Memory?

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  • Written By: E. Reeder
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 28 October 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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Long-term and working memory are connected because, for information to enter a person’s long-term memory, it must first pass through the person’s working memory, or short-term memory. To gain entrance to a person’s working memory, visual, auditory, tactile and other stimuli from the outside world must enter his or her sensory memory. A person receives a great deal of stimuli at all times while awake and some while asleep, but only the stimuli that he or she focuses on moves to working memory. From sensory memory, if the person gives attention to the stimuli, the information is transmitted to his or her short-term memory. Both long-term and working memory are essential to learning information and remembering important life events.

Once information based on outside stimuli reaches the working memory, it rapidly decays if it is not focused on and worked with in a meaningful way. For example, a person might hear a new vocabulary word, look up the meaning, and use it in a sentence in conversation with another person. The newly learned vocabulary word would then likely go into long-term memory, where information is stored for long periods of time — sometimes permanently — and can be accessed when needed. If a new vocabulary word is heard or read and ignored, it might be deleted from a person’s sensory memory. A new vocabulary word for which a person quickly learns the meaning might decay from his or her working memory if the information is not used again.

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Long-term and working memory each have several different aspects, though working memory is a bit less complicated than long-term memory. In working memory, a person holds information that he or she needs, has focused attention on voluntarily or involuntarily, or has a desire to remember. Information used in working memory may be remembered temporarily by methods such as chunking. This involves breaking information down into smaller pieces, such as dividing a bank account number or phone number into segments of three or four numbers each.

To help move information from short-term to long-term memory, a person also may use a mnemonic device. This is any memory aid that helps a person remember something. For example, some people may remember the spectrum of colors — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet — by using the name Roy G. Biv.

Long-term memory has several components, such as declarative memory, which consists of semantic and episodic memory. Semantic memory involves facts and information that have been learned. Episodic memory relates to memories of life events, significant or otherwise. Procedural memory involves the more unconsciously learned procedures and mechanical steps that one takes to perform tasks such as riding bikes, driving vehicles and bathing. One similarity between long-term and working memory is that both require some degree of information processing for that information to be stored.

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