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The Atkinson-Shiffrin Model

Memory is not one thing. Rather, it is any process that allows us to use previously stored information in present cognitive constructions. Such processes may be widespread in the brain, and each major brain system may have its own form of memory. This insight occurred gradually to modern psychologists and represented a major shift of emphasis in memory research, as compared to the historical era of Ebbinghaus and other early memory researchers.

By the mid to late 1960s, psychologists were starting to get comfortable with the idea of human information processing. By this they meant the mental processes involved in acquiring, organizing, and using knowledge and information of any type.

The classic Atkinson & Shiffrin model of memory

In 1965 Atkinson and Shiffrin suggested that human memory was organized as an information processing system with three stages. The diagram is based on their classic 1968 article in The Psychology of Learning and Memory, Vol. 2.

What were the three stages of the memory system, according to Atkinson & Shiffrin?

The diagram suggests that information from the environment first enters a sensory storage system, which Atkinson and Shiffrin called the sensory registers. Information in this system (the first box) is preserved for a brief period so the brain can process it.

Next the information enters a second box or memory system, labeled short-term store This box represents ongoing activity of the brain: whatever you are thinking about at the present moment. In the 1890s William James called this primary memory. In the 1970s it was often called short-term memory (abbreviated STM). The most common label in the 2000s is working memory, although some researchers argue for a distinction between working memory and short-term memory, based on subtle distinctions.

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