Atkinson-Shiffrin Theory of Memory Explained


First proposed in 1968, Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin suggest in their theory of memory that there are specific components which are part of human memory. It is an attempt to explain how the process of memory works and suggests that there is a multi-store model that the brain uses to retain this information.

Since 1890, the idea that different “stores” are used by the brain to retain information between primary and secondary information has been widely accepted. What Atkinson and Shiffrin attempted to provide is an explanation that includes different types of memories, such has long-term and short-term memory.

The Atkinson-Shiffrin theory of memory also proposes that a sensory register is part of the process of memory retention.

The 3 Components of Memory According to the Theory of Memory

Atkinson and Shiffrin propose in their model of the theory of memory that there are 3 specific components of human memory.

1. Sensory Register. This is where any sensory information that has been collected by the brain will enter a person’s memory.
2. Short-Term Store. It could also be called “working memory.” These are the short-term memories of recent events that may need to be immediately recalled for some reason, like when you last ate or what you had for breakfast this morning.
3. Long-Term Store. This is where information is “rehearsed,” allowing for the short-term memories to be stored for an indefinite period. Recalling these memories often requires a trigger.

For the sensory register component, Atkinson and Shiffrin recognize two types of memories that are collected most commonly: visual and auditory, or iconic and echoic respectively. It is important to note, however, that every human sense collects a memory.

You can remember the taste of macaroni and cheese and know that you like it. You remember what it feels like to get a good hug from your mother. You can remember that terrible smell that your best friend created on the bus in third grade when he made a stink bomb in a baby jar, opened it, and said, “Smell this.”

Each sensory memory is limited to the actual senses that were encountered. Iconic memories, for example, come only from a person’s field of vision.

What the human brain does is coordinate these various memories into one specific experience. This must happen quite rapidly, as visual memories tend to degrade in 1 second or less. Even echoic memories can fade within 5 seconds.

When those sensory memories are combined within the register, the data is then transferred to the short-term store.

What Is the Purpose of the Short-Term Store?

Short-term storage is the brain’s solution for retaining important sensory information that it doesn’t want to lose. Since the information decay rate is so high for most senses, the sensory register immediately “flags” important bits of data so they can be transferred into a person’s working memory.

Even short-term memory experiences information decay, but it is a slower process than in the sensory register. This storage point gives the brain time to evaluate whether or not the information being retained is relevant. If it is, then the rehearsal process begins to transfer the data one more time.

If it is deemed to be unimportant, then the information is allowed to decay.

What Is the Purpose of the Long-Term Store?

Long-term memory is an almost permanent storage component. Information is available here on-demand. This data can also be transferred back to the short-term store so it can be manipulated.

The purpose of a long-term store is to provide knowledge and experience at an individualized level. If you spent time memorizing your multiplication tables as a child, then recalling that information is evidence of long-term storage and “data copying” to short-term storage to “display” that data when needed.

What is lost from that memory is the feel of the paper you may have been holding. Perhaps there was a smell in the room. How your clothing felt while memorizing those equations is forgotten. This is all due to information decay. The data was deemed to be unnecessary when compared to the equations, so the brain didn’t rehearse it for long-term storage.

Yet this brings up the one core criticism of the Atkinson-Shiffrin theory of memory. Sometimes you can remember specific details, even if they were not rehearsed. Maybe you could smell the dinner being made in the kitchen. You recall your clothes felt soft, but a little itchy.

With the right trigger, it is possible to remember almost anything. That is the power of the human mind and why memory stores are one of the best theories as to how we can access that information when needed.