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Three-Component Model of Memory and Influences


Memory is one of the many mysteries of the human mind for which researchers are yet to have a comprehensive answer. Nevertheless, due to the importance of the topic, a vast amount of research has been done on it. One of the more established models of memory is called the Three-Component Model of Memory. This paper will provide an overview of the model, as well as information about the things that can affect memory.

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The Model

The three-component model of memory was originally developed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin in 1968. The researchers described memory as a system with three main components: sensory memory, short-term memory (also known as working memory), and long-term memory. Since then it has become one of the main models utilized to describe the inner workings of memory (Shiffrin et al., 2015).

The first component of the model is called “sensory memory.” It initially holds information before other components are activated. Sensory memory is divided into two sensory registers: iconic and echoic. Iconic memory is receiving and holding visual information that comes from people’s vision. There is no limit to the iconic memory as long as the object is visible. For example, when a person sees an elephant standing in the middle of a savannah surrounded by lush vegetation and exotic birds, all of these elements are being held by the iconic memory.

Echoic memory serves a similar role but is less capable of holding information. While there is almost no limit to its capacity, it can only hold superficial elements of sound. Its duration can differ from two seconds to 20, depending on the situation. For instance, echoic memory can be seen in the work of choirs when their members need to harmonize at a staggered pace. The memory holds the required pitch, and the singer reproduces it (Shiffrin et al., 2015).

Short term memory is the next step and serves as temporary storage for memory. The majority of information from the sensory memory vanishes but a certain portion of it remains and gets transferred into short-term memory. Auditory and visual information becomes represented in memory as a kind of code that is then interpreted by the human mind. A person might remember the phone number at the end of a commercial or the domain of a website. The time is limited for short-term memory, however. Depending on the stimulus that the person receives, they might hold five or nine objects for 20 to 30 seconds. Those objects might be words, numbers, letters as well as other things (Shiffrin et al., 2015).

The initial concept of short-term memory was eventually expanded to include four components. The first is the phonological loop that holds information about sounds. The second is the visuospatial sketchpad, which is responsible for visual and spatial information. The last element is the episodic buffer. It allows the mind to have temporary storage where it can use long-term memory, and information from the other two components to become consciously aware. The last component of working memory is the central executive. It is the component that controls the other components to fulfill the function of short-term memory (Shiffrin et al., 2015).

Long-term memory is the last component of the Three-Component Model of Memory. It is responsible for storing memory over the lifetime of a person. Its capacity is considered to be almost unlimited. The transfer of information to long-term memory happens when a person is continually accessing short-term memory. By holding the information in short-term memory, long term memory becomes clearer and more accurate. It is not an exact system, however, as various factors may prevent its transfer. One of the main examples of this process is often experienced by students. When studying, important information is often repeated multiple times. This allows long-term memory to form (Shiffrin et al., 2015).

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Negative Effects on Memory

A vast variety of things can have a negative effect on a person’s memory. For example, brain injuries may lead to memory loss (Hylin et al., 2013). Fading memory theory postulates that time alone is enough to make memories become uncertain and inaccurate until they are gone. The theory assumes that when a memory is created, it has a “trace” that disintegrates over time. However, other theories exist. The distortion theory proposes that memories are not an exact representation of events and that with time new elements of memories may replace old ones, leaving a person with a distorted view of the past. Repression theory notes that a mind can unconsciously block memories due to high levels of stress and trauma that it is associated with.

However, this theory is highly controversial and still debated due to the possibility of creating false memories during repression therapy. Interference theory states that old information stored in memories can prevent new information from being acquired or slow the process of its acquisition. Retrieval cue failure theory attempts to explain why the information in the long term memory can fail to be recalled. Information can be retrieved through internal and external cues. If it isn’t retrieved for a long time, it may be forgotten. A previously memorized poem may prove hard to remember if it was not recited in the last ten years (Crowder, 2014).

Positive Effects on Memory

Although the negative effects that may affect memory are numerous, there are ways of improving memory. The methods are relatively simple and do not require any complicated involvement.

The first method is the rehearsal. As the name suggests, it is focused on the repetition of the information with the goal of remembering it. This is common practice with performers, students, and people with a need to make accurate memories of specific information. For example, an actor not only participates in the main rehearsals before a play but also memorizes their lines and their context over and over, to make it a long term memory (Schneider & Ornstein, 2015).

The context for memory can be especially important, and it plays into the second method of improving memory. By elaborating the information with additional detail, a person is more likely to remember it accurately. By remembering the smells, weather, and other details, a person is able to better remember the event they experienced (Schneider & Ornstein, 2015).

The third method is the organization of information, and it is focused on creating more accurate memories by organizing them into a structure. By creating a pattern or a table of information, a person may have an easier time memorizing things. For instance, songs are extremely memorable when their structure repeats over the course of the song (Schneider & Ornstein, 2015).


Memories are some of the most important aspects of the human experience. They allow not only the retention of information, but also the creation of our personalities. Their exact nature is not yet known, but the current model appears to be sufficient for a general explanation.

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Crowder, R. (2014). Principles of learning and memory. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Hylin, M., Orsi, S., Rozas, N., Hill, J., Zhao, J., Redell, J., … Dash P. (2013). Repeated mild closed head injury impairs short-term visuospatial memory and complex learning. Journal of Neurotrauma, 30(9), 716-726.

Schneider, W., & Ornstein, P. (2015). The development of children’s memory. Child Development Perspectives, 9(3), 190-195.

Shiffrin, R., Raaijmakers, J., Criss, A., Goldstone, R., Nosofsky, R., & Steyvers, M. (eds.). (2015). Cognitive modeling in perception and memory. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

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