15 Sensory and Working Memory

Experimental Psychology


  1. James S. Nairne PhD1,
  2. Ian Neath PhD2

Published Online: 26 SEP 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781118133880.hop204015

Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition

Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition

How to Cite

Nairne, J. S. and Neath, I. 2012. Sensory and Working Memory. Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition. 4:V:15.

Author Information

  1. 1

    Purdue University, Department of Psychological Sciences, West Lafayette, IN

  2. 2

    Memorial University of Newfoundland, Department of Psychology, St. John's, NL, Canada

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 SEP 2012


Memory researchers traditionally distinguish between two types of transient memory: Sensory memory and short-term (or working) memory. Sensory memories are faithful, veridical records of original events. They represent literal persistence—the same sensory event simply removed in time. Short-term memories are the active, but analyzed, contents of mind—the stuff of conscious awareness. This chapter reviews the major empirical properties of sensory and short-term memory and discusses the various methodologies that are used to study each. Sensory memories—measured through synchrony judgment tasks, backward masking techniques, or by the Sperling partial report task—last for only a few hundred milliseconds and may accrue as a simple by-product of neural dynamics. Short-term memories—measured primarily through the Brown-Peterson distractor task and immediate serial recall—probably last for a second or two but can be maintained indefinitely through rehearsal. Traditional accounts of short-term storage—e.g., the working memory model—have come under attack in recent years. Increasingly, researchers are concluding that remembering over the short-term is cue-driven, much like long-term memory, and that simple notions of rehearsal and decay are unlikely to explain the particulars of short-term forgetting.


  • sensory memory;
  • short-term memory;
  • working memory;
  • decay;
  • interference;
  • temporal distinctiveness;
  • retrieval