Maintenance Rehearsal (Memory Trick)

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Practical Psychology

Until fairly recently, we didn't conclusively know where our brains stored new memories in the brain. For a long time, we believed that memories were stored in the neurons. However, as Neuroscience technology advanced, researchers found that the brain may actually store memories in the synapses.

Maintenance rehearsal is a psychological technique used to memorize information for a short period. It usually involves repeating information without absorbing its meaning or connecting it to other information, meaning that it is less likely to be stored in long-term memory.

Maintenance rehearsal works by verbally repeating information, which the brain processes and remembers for a short period. This post will consider how maintenance rehearsal works, whether it can be used as a memory aid, and how it compares to other memory techniques.

Maintenance Rehearsal Explained

Maintenance rehearsal is a technique of remembering that is useful to maintain information in the short-term memory or the working memory.

This method usually involves repeating the information without thinking about the context or meaning of the information.

Because this technique doesn't use existing information, it doesn't store well in the long-term memory, and the information is lost after a few minutes.

A common example of this rehearsal effect is repeating a phone number aloud until you can input the contact in your phone to call.

How this works is that the number is contained in the memory long enough to make the call but not long enough to be committed to memory as it would be if you repeat the number daily. You can see this by focusing on the short term section of our memory test, it's free to take and includes instant results.

Memory recall involves various processes operating at different levels.

Maintenance rehearsal works by continually processing a piece of information at the same level which things that little attention are processed.

The information can be immediately recalled but does not last long enough to be recalled from long-term memory - this, however, depends on what information needs to be processed.

If the information only has temporary use, the individual will use maintenance rehearsal in their working memory to store and recall the information.

If the individual requires the information at a later time, the information needs to be better processed and stored in the long-term memory through elaborative rehearsal.

Elaborative Rehearsal vs. Maintenance Rehearsal

Elaborative rehearsal requires information to be processed at a deeper, more significant level.

Because the information needs more elaborate memory processes, it is more likely to be stored.

A 2005 literature review by Jondies and co suggested that structures process information that enters the working memory from the visual world in the parietal and temporal lobes.

These lobes are specialized for perceptual processing.

In certain situations, maintenance rehearsal has the potential to aid long-term memory.

A 2009 research study by Baddeley and co considered the difference in recall for a set of words.

The study had two groups of participants: the first group who knew they would be asked to recall the words and another who did not know that they would need to recall the words.

The group who knew they would recall the words repeated them multiple times, while the other group only repeated them once.

The group who was told that they would have to recall the words at a later time performed significantly better than those who were not told they would have to recall the words.

They also found a positive correlation between how meaningful the words are to the individual and their ability to recall the word.

In other words, the more meaning a person attaches to a certain word or list of words, the more likely they will remember the words if asked to repeat them later.

Additionally, there can be differences in how younger and older children rehearse information.

A 1981 study by Dempster reported that young children tend to only rehearse individual items at a time.

By committing the information this way, it helped them to remember the item without confusing the pieces of information with others.

The developmental age of a child – how researchers measure how closely a person's physical and mental development parallels with normal developmental milestones – also plays a role in how they remember and rehearse information.

Older children are better at rehearsing multiple pieces of information at once.

Maintenance rehearsal is useful in many situations where the information you need to recall won't benefit you from remembering it in the long term.

But the information that requires more attention and better processing are unlikely to be effectively stored by maintenance rehearsal.

Other processing techniques and elaborative rehearsal will move more information from the working memory to long-term memory more effectively.

Explaining Working Memory

Working memory is commonly known as more of a process than an actual storage mechanism.

Working memory is critical to maintaining and manipulating information in one's mind.

Because of its significance to cognition, working memory is responsible for new information that has immediate importance.

However, it is not committed to permanently storing the information in long-term memory.

In this way, working memory exists in an area somewhere between short-term and long-term memory.

The phonological loop is a concept utilized in maintenance rehearsal and is one of the best-known functions of working memory.

The phonological loop comprises two parts: a short-term store and an articulatory rehearsal process that both works to constantly refresh subvocal memorization.

The phonological loop's capacity is not large -- it can effectively hold around seven items -- but it depends on a subvocal rehearsal.

Subvocal rehearsal allows the phonological loop to refresh the memory traces of those items so that they temporarily stay in the memory.

Similarly, subvocal rehearsal is dependent upon the short-term store in that it is where the information for the phonological loop is found.

In this way, both phonological loop processes directly rely on one another to complete the process.

Regarding learning theory, the phonological loop is especially effective when visual information is paired with auditory information.

For example, if one were to read a set of information and listen to it being read audibly, one would be more likely to remember it than if you were to simply read it without the audio.

In this way, the maintenance rehearsal is most beneficial with rote memorization.

However, maintenance rehearsal can be used as a tool for learning, particularly when paired with other modes.

How Memories Are Stored

Many people refer to memory as something they possess and even rate it on how well they can use it, but this is inaccurate.

Memories don't exist in the same way that physical objects exist. 

Rather, memory is a concept that refers to the process of remembering.

To explain the concept very simply, memories are stored as microscopic chemical changes at connecting points between neurons in the brain, called synapses.

Synaptic points exist at the ends of neurons.

Three types of neurons are responsible for all information transfer in the nervous system:

  • Interconnecting neurons -- transfer information throughout the nervous system and connect to the motor neurons.
  • Motor neurons – connect to the muscle tissue and activate them.
  • Sensory neurons – these detect the stimulus from each of the senses and communicate the information to the interconnecting neurons.

Steps Involved In Memory Processing

There are certain steps involved when memory is processed, starting with encoding.

Encoding is a biological phenomenon that relies heavily on perception.

Encoding Memories

Consider for a moment a memory of a time you met someone important to you.

This being a big event in your life, your visual system picked up on the person's personality and body language cues.

Your auditory system noticed the sound of their voice, and your olfactory component probably even registered how the person smelled.

These sensory cues are largely responsible for forming our perceptions.

Each of these sensations traveled to the hippocampal part of your brain.

The hippocampus is a section of the brain that is vital to integrating these separate perceptions to perceive it as a single event.

According to neuroscientists, the hippocampus and the frontal cortex are the two largest parts of the brain responsible for analyzing various sensory inputs and dictating if they are worth remembering.

If the sensory inputs are worth remembering, they have a chance to become part of your long-term memory.

While memory starts with perception, it ends in multiple synaptic transmissions to encode and store the information. 

Neurons are the basic units of information transfer within the nervous system – your body's messengers, if you will.

The perceived information travels through the nervous system by communicating with other neurons via an electrochemical process known as synapsing.

Synapses carry electrical pulses, via which information is transferred.

These synaptic transfers rely on the electrical pulses containing information and trigger the release of neurotransmitters -- a type of chemical messenger.

Impressively, each brain cell can create thousands of links like this, giving the typical brain about 100 trillion synapses.

Because the brain is neuroplastic -- the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning -- it constantly undergoes alterations.

As new memories are created, new synapses are added, increasing the number of connections within the brain.

Once memories are 'encoded,' they are either transferred to long-term or short-term memory.

This transferring process is a part of memory storage, which is the second step in forming memory.

Storing Memories

There is no requirement for humans to maintain every perceived detail of our lives.

(Interestingly, some people – 61 to be exact – have the special ability to retain every detail with a condition known as hyperthymesia syndrome, often referred to as highly superior autobiographical memory.)

The various stages of human memory function as a filter that helps to manage all the information we are exposed to daily.

When we perceive information or make a mental note of something, the information is stored in the short-term memory.

However, our short-term memories have a limited capacity.

Short-term memory can effectively hold seven pieces of information for around 20 to 30 seconds at a time.

Once the information is processed, two different things can happen:

  • The information can be lost
  • The information can be transferred into long-term memory

Long-term memory is the branch of our memory storage that has a perceived unlimited capacity to hold information for long periods.

There are two types of memory included in long-term memory:

  • Unconscious memory -- a part of the brain that stores information without our conscious knowledge. An example is how to brush your teeth or ride a bicycle. These memories are slow to acquire but don't often get lost.
  • Conscious memory – is a type of memory that mainly remembers and stores facts like names, dates, etc. The information here is quickly acquired but is usually also quickly lost. To cement these facts, one has to constantly repeat or be exposed to the information.

So the steps of memories are described, but how do people recall memories?

Memory Retrieval

When you want to remember a certain memory, say the time you adopted your first puppy, you reach out to your unconscious memory storage facility.

The data from this storage space is then transferred to your consciousness at your own will.

While many people think they have either a bad or a good memory, they are truly just fairly good at remembering some things and not so good at remembering others.

The failure to remember something can result from faulty data encoding, assuming that you don't have a physical condition.

The information essentially fails to make it into the long-term memory.

Similarly, distractions that occur while you're trying to remember something can also hinder the encoding process.

If you are trying to study for a test in a crowded public setting, you may think you remember what you read, but you may not effectively save it in your memory.

Ineffective memory saving may lead to failure in the retrieval of that memory.


Maintenance rehearsal typically involves rote repetition, either out loud or mentally.

The technique is effective in maintaining relatively small amounts in memory for brief periods but is not likely to affect retention in the long term.

One would have to utilize elaborative rehearsal techniques to store information over the long term.

The short-term nature of maintenance rehearsal is still vital to daily tasks and interactions.

In fact, maintenance rehearsal is a great tool for remembering things for the period that is relevant to you and your situation.


Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, August). Maintenance Rehearsal (Memory Trick). Retrieved from

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