What is Primary Memory?

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What are the characteristics of primary memory?

Primary memory is where information is stored after it is first obtained. The primary memory is also referred to as short-term memory. Information sent to primary memory storage is deciphered and either discarded or retained for later retrieval. Although the information can be stored for a time in the primary memory, it is subject to interference and information can be easily forgotten. Over time, information decays and is lost from the primary memory storage.

The capacity of the primary memory varies from one individual to the next, and some types of information is easier to retain than other. According to Willingham (2007), “It appears that material can be coded in primary memory in at least three ways: visuospatially, acoustically (in terms of sound), and semantically (in terms of meaning)” (p. 155 ).

Semantics help the primary memory to retain information longer than acoustic or visuospatial, because chunking allows information to be obtained in chunks, such as a poem (Willingham, p. 160). A list of one hundred words would be difficult to retain and retrieve, but if that many words were remembered as a block of information in the form of a poem, for example, the list of one hundred words can be more easily stored and retained.

What is the process of memory from perception to retrieval, and what happens when the process is compromised?

Information that enters the short-term memory is sometimes passed along to be stored in long term memory. Rehearsal and attention play a significant role in what, and how much information is conveyed and stored for later retrieval. If intense studying of a particular subject over a period of time happens, the information will be more easily passed to long-term storage. Similarly, information that is rehearsed, using the example of a poem once again, it is likely that it will be stored in long-term memory and the poem can be recalled and recited correctly at a later date.

Some information is also transferred from long-term memory back to short term memory. This might be information that is not needed on a regular basis, but it still handy for use when the current situation calls for it. As Willingham (2007), aptly states, “…this makes sense. The fact that you like maple syrup on pancakes but prefer lingonberry jam on toast is in long-term memory but not short-term memory. When I ask,’“What do you like on pancakes?”’, you retrieve the answer from long-term memory and enter it into short-term memory (p.164).

Is it possible for memory retrieval to be unreliable?

Memory retrieval is not always reliable. Despite the fact that information may have been important at the time it was obtained, and equally as important at the present time. Needing to retrieve stored information from memory at will doesn’t mean it is necessarily possible.

The absence of cues is one way to explain how memory can be unreliable (Willingham, 2007, p. 209). If I were asked to recall a conversation I had with a neighboring farmer 12 years ago, it is highly unlikely that I will recall what you are requesting me to remember. However, if you asked me to tell you everything I learned about my milking goats from a conversation I had with that neighbor, then you would be in for a treat! It is often the case, too, that cues can help to prompt the memory of something you were about to say when you walked back into the living room from the kitchen. If you walked back into the kitchen and saw the empty milk carton, you would then remember to tell me that I needed to pick up more milk on my way home from work the next day.

In addition to the absence of cues, retroactive and proactive interference make memory retrieval unreliable (Willingham, p. 154). New information can distort memories of prior knowledge about something, making the old memories harder to retrieve. Old information stored in long-term memory can also override new information we obtain about a thing, making the new information less likely to remember later. The new information will be retained for a period of time, but it too, can decay if the old information hasn’t successfully wiped it from memory altogether.


Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall


Kerry Hosking
Posted on Dec 27, 2011
Donata L.
Posted on Dec 27, 2011