External Memory Systems: Part 1 of 4

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The terms encoding, retention, and retrieval are often used to describe three basic aspects of memory systems. Encoding refers to the way information is first stored or represented in a system. Retention refers to the way the information is preserved in a system over time. And retrieval refers to the way the information is finally recovered from a system. The three aspects can be illustrated in terms of that most familiar external memory system, a book. Information is first encoded into patterns of ink in the form of words when the book is printed. It is retained over time by the persistence of this pattern, although information can be lost if the ink or paper is of poor quality, or if the book is physically damaged (by water or fire, etc.).

Finally, the information in the book is retrieved or recovered when it is read. The same distinctions can also be made in terms of another external memory system, a tape recording. Here information-for example a lecturer’s voice-is encoded in the form of magnetic patterns laid down on the tape as it moves past the recording head. Retention of the information depends on the persistence of this pattern over time. Again, information can be lost if the tape is physically damaged or exposed to strong magnetic fields, or if another recording is made over the first. Finally, information is retrieved from the tape by playing it back.

We will use the phrase information loss in a very general way to refer to anything that interferes with the accurate retrieval of information. Information loss can occur during encoding retention, or retrieval. For example, a tape recorder could lose information because of improper recording (encoding), accidental erasure during retention, or a broken playback system that prevents retrieval.

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