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The model of memory below, an even more simplified one than the version in your book, illustrates some very important concepts

The sensory register is just that, where information registers on your senses. For example, a butterfly passes flies in front of you as you are walking to the college, another person passes you, walking in the opposite direction, there is green grass on the lawns on either side of you, the road underneath is hard with occasional pieces of gravel, birds are chirping, a car horn honks in the distance, you can smell the bacon cooking in someone's house as you pass by, geese are flying overhead, your sweater is tight around your waist. Every waking hour, we are bombarded with stimuli - sights, sounds, smells, touches - everything from the sensation of your clothes against your body (which you may be thinking about now for the first time in weeks!) to your baby's first step. The great majority of that information never even makes it past a brief consciousness.

Two experiments on the sensory register and short term memory.

I used to do this experiment in my college classes to demonstrate how information registers on the senses and yet does not make it in to short term memory. I would have a student walk into the classroom, hand me a sheet of papers, make some comment about "Here are the papers you wanted" and then leave. Immediately, I would turn to the class and say, "Write down on a piece of paper the color of shirt and shoes the person had on." About half of the class (or less) would remember the person's shirt color, and usually 10% or less could remember the shoe color - despite the fact that they had all seen what the student was wearing and less than 10 seconds would have passed between when the person walked out of sight and they were asked to recall the colors. 

Try this experiment on someone you know (Frank de la Paz is a good one to play tricks on - or any of those Project Drive people!). 
1. Walk into the office, say "hello". 
2. Wait until he looks up and says, "hello", then walk into the nearest cubicle and call over the wall "Tell me what color clothes I have on."

For the second experiment, you need to scroll down the page. Move down until the words "STOP HERE" written in bold letters below are at the top of the page.

STOP HERE --- To do the second experiment,  keep scrolling until these words are at the top of the page.

Now... without looking back up, answer the following questions:
In the picture to the right of the description of the experiments, there were beakers of liquids.
1. How many beakers were there?
2. How many different colors of liquids were there?
3. Name the colors.

The point (and I do have one) is that while a great deal of information is sensed by the average person, only a small fraction receives enough attention to make it even into short-term memory.

Speaking of short-term memory, the next box in our figure (which I have reproduced below so as not to tax your short-term memory)

is just that, short-term memory. Short-term memory has very limited capacity. Only a very few pieces of information at a time can be held in short-term memory. You have probably had this experience in several contexts.

Examples of failures to move from short-term to long-term memory:

  1. 1. You look up a phone number and pick up the phone to dial it. Someone else in the room asks you a question. You answer the question and turn back to the phone to dial the number, only to realize that you have forgotten it.
  1. 2. You walk upstairs in your house to get something. On the way upstairs, you notice an item that needs to be put away. You carry it up with you, put it away and then go to get what you came upstairs to get, except that you realize you cannot remember what it is you wanted up here.

Both of these examples, or something very similar, have probably happened to you. Both demonstrate that short-term memory can hold only a very small amount and for a very short time. When something else enters your short-term memory, whatever was in there previously, such as a phone number, is lost.

Developmental changes in information processing

  • As children get older, they become able to hold more pieces of information in short-term memory. While a preschool child can generally hold two or three pieces of information in short-term memory, by upper elementary, he or she can hold seven or eight pieces of information in short-term memory. (Why do you think phone numbers are seven digits long and not nine or eleven or thirty-two?)
  • More importantly, children become better at using strategies to move information from short-term to long-term memory. The first strategy is rehearsal or repetition, i.e., just saying the information you want to remember over and over. (Why do you think I have said "short-term memory" 14 times in the last 20 sentences? I bet if someone asked you at this point what this section of the course was about, you could readily answer "short-term memory". ) They also become better at categorizing, chunking and other memory strategies. (We would spend a lot of time on this if this were an Educational Psychology course, but it isn't.) For young children then, it is not sufficient to simply instruct them to remember something. You should first draw their attention to it in some way (to make sure it even makes it from the sensory register TO short-term memory). Then, you should repeat it several times, or, even better, have the child repeat the information or action, to insure that it makes it FROM short-term memory to long-term memory.
  • Children also become better at meta-memory and metacognition, that is, knowing about their own memory and thought processes. For example, as children grow older, from early childhood through adolescence, they become better at predicting how much they can remember, (young children overestimate their ability to remember, while older children are more accurate), they become better at selecting an appropriate strategy to remember or to solve a problem.

Well, I could go on for hours, and give many more examples, but we DO need to at some point move on to the subject of social development, so, let's do that now, right after the quiz.

Click here to take a quiz on cognitive development in early childhood.

Click here to go on to the next section of the course - social development in early childhood.

Click here to return to the home page.

Click here for the hell of it. It doesn't go anywhere.

NOTE: I am aware that I did not discuss at all either gender roles (we will cover that in the next section - social development in early childhood) nor intelligence (we will cover that in the section of the course on cognitive development in middle childhood). Both of those topics are relevant and important. I just thought they fit more logically somewhere else in the course.

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