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What's the difference between short term memory and working memory?

  1. Feb 25, 2012 #1
    What's the difference between short term memory and working memory? Is there any physiological difference?like difference in neural network formation? Thx!!
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 25, 2012 #2


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    Working memory is the use and processing of short-term memories for effecting behaviors. So, for example, if you walk into a new building, the direction you turn at each hall is in your short-term memory. Needing to process that information to reverse your path to get back out is working memory. Though, I think I've also seen them used interchangeably at times.
  4. Feb 26, 2012 #3
    Working memory is the 'online' information that is being processed at a given time. Working memory is usually dumped fairly quickly and not always sent for further memory storage (short term memory, long term memory etc).

    Think of working memory (WM) as a type of rough drafting tool that you can use to alter or change memories. Like moonbears example, when you walk into a building for the first time you encode the path you took (left turn, right turn, up elevator and right turn). During this time your brain processed your path and stored it in short-term memory (STM). While you were at the office you stopped thinking about the path. This dumped the information out of your working memory. After you were finished you recalled the path from your STM back into your WM. You then processed it by reversing the directions to leave (left turn, down elevator, left turn, right turn). Once you were out of the building the directions are taken offline and out of your WM. If you return to the building the next day you would still be able to recall these memories due to their STM storage.

    WM is thought to be processed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain (for rodents and humans at least). STM and LTM in the hippocampal formation. A good example of distinguishing WM from STM is the case of H.M.

    H.M. was a man missing both hippocampal-formations (there are two mirror sides of the brain, thus two formations). When H.M. would meet a researcher for the first time he would greet them kindly and talk to them. He was able to carry on meaningful conversations and remember what had been said during these conversations. Thus he was able to temporarily remember and manipulate new information (WM). But if the person left the room and returned a minute or two later H.M. would not remember anything about that person or their conversations they had a minute ago. H.M. had dumped his WM store (taken it offline) but since he had no hippocampal-formation, the WM could not be stored as STM and it was lost. When the researcher reappeared, H.M. did not recognize him because he had not stored his WM into STM and would greet the researcher again as if they had never met. Futhermore, H.M. was unable to remember any long-term memories after he lost his hippocampi. He had been being researched for 20 years and had met this researcher hundreds of time before even though he never remembered him once!

    It helped me to think of learning new memory in this fashion:
    Sensory memory --attention--> WM --storage--> STM --consolidation--> LTM

    Recalling memory goes like this:
    WM <--recall-- STM or LTM

    after changes and before being dumped offline

    WM --reconsolidation--> New STM or New LTM

    So working memory has different roles depending on whether or not the information is new or old. But in general, WM is a temporary hold for information that allows the brain to modify and adjust the online information. This new (or modified) information is sent to STM for more stable storage since WM stores are very labile.
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2012
  5. Nov 8, 2013 #4
  6. Nov 13, 2013 #5
    Yes, STM and WM are often used interchangeably.

    I'd further like to add that WM processes both STM and LTM.
  7. Nov 14, 2013 #6


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  8. Dec 8, 2013 #7
    Short-term memory is the capacity for holding a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period of time. The duration of short-term memory is believed to be in the order of seconds. A commonly cited capacity is 7 ± 2 elements.

    In contrast, long-term memory can hold an indefinite amount of information.
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