Field of Science

What is the relationship between short-term and long-term memory?

In a textbook, you may see a description of memory in terms of stages. The first stage is iconic memory, which lasts just a few seconds, during which you can to some degree revive the perceptual experience you are trying to remember. Think of this almost like the afterglow of a bright flash of light.

Then comes short-term memory, which may or may not be also described as working memory (they aren't necessarily the same thing), which allows you to remember something for a short period of time by actively maintaining it. Anteriograde amnesics (like the guy in Memento) have intact short-term memory. What they don't have is long-term memory, which is basically recalling to mind something you haven't thought about in a while.

There are many aspects of the relationship between short-term memory and long-term memory that are still not clear. Over the last several months, Tal Makovski and I have been running a study trying to clarify part of this relationship.

We thought we had concluded it last week. I took the experiment offline, analyzed the results, wrote up a report and sent it to Tal. He wrote back with conclusions based on the data completely different from those that I had. Bascially, the results of two conditions are numerically different, but statistically there is no difference. He believes that if we had more participants, the difference would become statistically significant. I don't.

It's up to you, dear readers, to prove one of us wrong. The experiment is back online (click here for info; here to go straight to the test). It involves a quick visual short-term memory test, then you watch a video, after which you'll be quizzed on your memory for the video. It's by far the most entertaining of the experiments I've put online, mainly because the video is fantastic. It is Bill et John: Episode II, which was profiled in Slate. I've watched it easily a hundred times in the course of designing this study, and it's still fall-out-of-your-chair funny. Which is good, because it's nearly 10 minutes long, making the entire experiment take about 15 minutes.

Once again, you can find the experiment here. Once the results are available, I will post them on this blog and on the website.

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