The mind and brain of short-term memory

Annu Rev Psychol. 2008:59:193-224. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093615.


The past 10 years have brought near-revolutionary changes in psychological theories about short-term memory, with similarly great advances in the neurosciences. Here, we critically examine the major psychological theories (the "mind") of short-term memory and how they relate to evidence about underlying brain mechanisms. We focus on three features that must be addressed by any satisfactory theory of short-term memory. First, we examine the evidence for the architecture of short-term memory, with special attention to questions of capacity and how--or whether--short-term memory can be separated from long-term memory. Second, we ask how the components of that architecture enact processes of encoding, maintenance, and retrieval. Third, we describe the debate over the reason about forgetting from short-term memory, whether interference or decay is the cause. We close with a conceptual model tracing the representation of a single item through a short-term memory task, describing the biological mechanisms that might support psychological processes on a moment-by-moment basis as an item is encoded, maintained over a delay with some forgetting, and ultimately retrieved.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Psychological Theory
  • Psychophysiology*
  • Retention, Psychology
  • Time Factors