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Memory Process


The Memory Process


Memory is the processes that is used to acquire, retain, and later retrieve information. The memory process involves three domains: encoding, storage, and retrieval.


Encoding – processing incoming information so it can be entered into memory

Storage – maintaining information in memory for a period of time

Retrieval – accessing or recalling stored information from memory so it can be used


memory process



Overview of the Memory Process

Encoding is the process of getting information into memory. If information or stimuli never gets encoded, it will never be remembered. Encoding requires paying attention to information and linking it to existing knowledge in order to make the new information meaningful and thus easier to remember.


Storage consists of retention of information over time. It is believed that we can gather information in three main storage areas: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. These areas vary according to time frames.


Retrieval is the process of getting information out of memory. The ability to access and retrieve information from memory allows you to use the memories to answer questions, perform tasks, make decisions, and interact with other people.




Encoding is the process of getting information into memory. If information or stimuli never gets encoded, it will not be remembered.

Encoding is the first stage of the memory process.  Encoding occurs when information is translated into a form that can be processed mentally. Information from the environment is constantly reaching your senses in the forms of stimuli. Encoding allows you to change the stimuli so that you may put it into your memory. It is similar to librarians classifying books before placing them on a shelf. As librarians encode/label books so patrons to easily locate them, you encode/label information before placing the information into your memory.


Two Ways of Encoding

Simply receiving sensory input is not sufficient to encode information. You must attend to and process that input. Encoding that information occurs through both automatic processing and effortful processing.

Automatic processing occurs without any conscious awareness. It occurs effortlessly, automatically, without you having to think about it. Examples includes details like time, space, frequency, personal experience, and some motor skills learning.

You are always encoding the events of your life. Every day you encode events and can remember what happened, at least for a while. For example, you probably can remember what you had for dinner last night, even though you didn’t intentionally try to remember that information. However, other types of information become encoded only if you pay attention to it. For example, you would need to pay attention if someone gave you their telephone number or gave you a list of items to pick up at the store. That types of encoding is effortful processing, since it involves effort.

Effortful processing occurs when you consciously try to remember information. It requires special attention, thought, and practice. In other words, you have to put in effort to get the information in to memory.



Three Kinds of Encoding

When information comes into your sensory memory, it needs to be changed into a form that can be stored.  There are three main ways in which information can be encoded/changed:

  1. Visual (picture)
  2. Acoustic (sound)
  3. Semantic (meaning)


Visual encoding: Information is represented as a picture

Acoustic encoding: Information is represented as sounds

Semantic encoding: Information is represented by its meaning to you


When you are exposed to information through your senses, you take the information and begin processing it in visual, acoustic, and/or semantic form. This means that you take in information, either as a picture, a sound, or give the information meaning. For example, if you look at a telephone number on a piece of paper, you are using visual encoding. If you say the number out loud, you are acoustically encoding. If you notice that some of the digits sequentially represent a special date, you give that number meaning and thus semantically encoding.




Storage is the retention of information over time. This second stage of the memory process creates a permanent record of the encoded information.

It is believed that we can accumulate information in three main storage areas: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. Information is stored sequentially in the three memory systems, and the storage areas vary according to time frames. The period of time that information is retained is anywhere from a fraction of a second to years. Sensory memory only stores information for a brief second. Short-term memory can hold information longer, but it is only usually about 30-45 seconds. Long-term memory, however, can last a lifetime.


Sensory Memory

Sensory memory stores incoming sensory information in detail, but only for a fraction of a second. The capacity of sensory memory is very large, but the information in it is unprocessed.


Short-Term Memory

Some of the information in sensory memory transfers to short-term memory. Short-term memory can hold information for approximately 30-45 seconds. Rehearsing the information can help keep it in short-term memory longer. For example, if you repeat a person’s phone number over and over to yourself, you are using rehearsal to keep it in your short-term memory.

Short-term memory has a limited capacity. It is believed to hold about seven pieces of information, plus or minus two pieces. Chunking is a method that can help increase the capacity of short-term memory. Chunking involves grouping small bits of information into larger chunks. So, you still retain the same number of items (7 +/- 2), but the size of the items are bigger.


Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory has an almost an unlimited storage capacity. Information that makes it into long-term memory can remain there for your entire life. However, even though it is there you may not always be able to remember the information, because you may not be able to retrieve it. The way we store information in long-term memory affects the way we retrieve it.




Retrieval is the process of recalling stored information from memory. Basically, it is getting information out of your long-term memory and returning it to your conscious mind.


Recognition and Recall

There are two main methods of retrieving memories:

  • Recognition
  • Recall



Recognition is the association of something with something previously experienced. It involves comparing new information with information stored in memory. The recognition process is initiated as a response to a sensory cue. When you see something, you compare it to information stored in your memory. Hence, you recognize it. For example, you may go to a party and see a person you recognize from a prior experience.



Recall is the retrieval of information from memory without a cue. If a person asks you a question, you must search your memory to recall the answer. It involves remembering a fact, event, or other information that is not currently physically present. For example, you may have to recall the list of items you had on your shopping list.


Related Links


Classification of Memory

Memory Process

Stages of Memory

Types of Memory

Memory Techniques

Causes of Forgetting

Encoding Information into Memory

Paying Attention and Memory

Types of Attention




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Stages of Memory

Stages of Memory


Memory is the mental function that enables you to acquire, retain, and recall sensations, impressions, information, and thoughts you have experienced.

To help understand memory as a whole, you can think of memory in terms of stages. The different stages describe the length of time that information remains available to you.

The three stages of memory are:

  • Sensory memory
  • Short-term memory
  • Long-term memory




Overview – Three Stages of Memory

There are three memory stages: sensory, short-term, and long-term. Information processing begins in sensory memory, moves to short-term memory, and eventually moves into long-term memory.

Information that you come across on a daily basis may move through the three stages of memory. However, not all information makes its way through all three stages. Most of it is forgotten somewhere along the way. The determination of what information makes its way through the different stages depends on what you pay attention to and process. Information that you pay attention to and process will move to the next stage of memory. However, any information you to do not pay attention to never makes it way to the next stage.


Memory flow



Stages of Memory

Sensory memory – Processes information gathered through your five senses. It holds information for an extremely brief period of time (less than a second) after the original stimulus has stopped.

Short-term memory – holds information you are actively thinking about. It lasts for a very brief time (less than a minute) and can only hold 7 +/- 2 pieces of information at once.

Long-term memory – holds information for long periods even permanently. It seemingly can hold an unlimited amount of information.



Sensory Memory

Sensory memory is the first stage of memory. Its purpose is to give your brain time to process the incoming information.

Sensory memory is not consciously controlled. You subconsciously and continuously gather information from the environment through your five senses. Sensory memory holds impressions of that sensory information that was received by your five senses after the original stimulus has stopped. However, it only holds it for a very brief period, generally for no longer than a second. In order for that information to be retained for longer, it has to continue onto short-term memory.

Most of the information that gets into sensory memory is forgotten. It never makes its way into the second stage of memory because it was never attended to. To get information into short-term memory, you need to attend to it – meaning consciously paying attention to it.

Sensory memory can be observed if you look at an object then close your eyes. As your eyes close, you can notice how the visual image is maintained for a fraction of a second before fading. It is your sensory memory that is holding that image.

Sensory memory also explains why the old 16mm movies shot with 16 separate frames per second appears as continuous movement rather than a series of single still pictures.   A visual trace is retained in sensory memory for about a split second. But it holds it long enough to keep the image in your mind until the next still image replaces it.

16 mm film

Basically, sensory memory allows you to see the world as an unbroken chain of events, rather than as individual pieces. This is an example of iconic memory, which is your visual sensory memory.

There are two other types of sensory memory; echoic memory (the auditory sensory) and haptic memory (the tactile sensory).


Types of Sensory memory

Iconic memory is the visual sensory memory that holds the mental representation of your visual stimuli.

Echoic memory is the auditory sensory memory that hold information that you hear.

Haptic memory is the tactile sensory memory that holds information from your sense of feeling.



Short-term Memory

Short-term Memory Short-term memory (STM) is also known as working or active memory. It holds the information you are currently thinking about. This information will quickly be forgotten unless you make a conscious effort to retain it.

Like sensory memory, short-term memory holds information temporarily, pending further processing. However, unlike sensory memory which holds the complete image received by your senses, short-term memory only stores your interpretation of the image.


Temporary Storage

As indicated above, information in short-term memory is not stored permanently. Information passes from sensory memory into short-term memory, where again it is held for only a short period of time. Most of the information stored in short-term memory will only be kept for approximately 20 to 45 seconds. While many of your short-term memories are quickly forgotten, paying attention to the information and processing (encoding) it allows it to continue into long-term memory. Just as sensory memory is a necessary step for short-term memory, short-term memory is a necessary step toward the next stage of retention, long-term memory.

Processing or encoding includes making judgments and assessments about meaning, relevance, and significance of that information. It also includes the mental activities needed to move selected portions of the information into long-term memory. If encoding never happens, the information never gets into long-term memory.

The reason a person forgets the name of someone to whom he or she has just been introduced to is because the name often was never encoded and transferred from short-term to long-term memory.


Limited capacity

Short-term memory not only has a limited time, it also has a limited capacity. It is believed to only hold a few items. Research shows the number is around 7 +/- 2 items. For example, if a person is asked to listen to a series of 20 names, he or she normally retains only about seven names. Typically, it is either the first few or last few. The reason is because if you focuses on the first few items, your STM becomes saturated, and you cannot concentrate on and recall the last series of items. People are able to retain more information using memory techniques such as chunking or rehearsal.



Long-term Memory

Long-Term Memory Long-term memory (LTM) refers to the storage of information over an extended period. It is all the memories you hold for periods longer than a few seconds. The information can last in your long-term memory for hours, days, months, or even years. Although you may forget some information after you learn it, other things will stay with you forever.

Some information retained in STM is processed or encoded into long-term memory. This information is filed away in your mind and must be retrieved before it can be used. Some of the information in your LTM is easy to recall, while other memories are much more difficult to retrieve.

Unlike short-term memory, long-term memory has seemingly unlimited capacity. You may remember numerous facts and figures, as well as episodes in your life from years ago.



Types of long-term memory

There are main two types of long term memory; explicit memory and implicit memory.


Explicit memory

Explicit memory are those experiences that can be intentionally and consciously remembered. It is knowledge or experiences that can be consciously remembered such as facts, data, episodes, or events. Explicit memory can be further sub-categorized as either episodic or semantic memories.

Episodic memory refers to the firsthand experiences that you have had (e.g. episodes or events in your life). For example, you may remember your 16th birthday party or your first soccer game.

Semantic memory refers to knowledge of facts and concepts about the world. For example, you may remember the names of presidents or how to multiple two numbers.



Implicit memory

Implicit memory refers to knowledge that we cannot consciously access. It is remembering without awareness. For example, you may remember how to ride a bike or walk, but it is difficult to explain how you do it.


Related Links


Classification of Memory

Memory Process

Stages of Memory

Types of Memory

Memory Techniques

Causes of Forgetting

Encoding Information into Memory

Paying Attention and Memory

Types of Attention



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 Causes of Forgetting



Causes of Forgetting

Everyone forgets things; like a person’s name, where they left their keys, the ending to a movie, or how to do math problems.  However, the reason why we forget something may differ.  Have you ever felt like a piece of information has just disappeared from memory?  Or have you had situations where you have no memory of a certain event?  Or maybe, you know certain pieces of information exist in your mind, but you just cannot seem to retrieve it.

The inability to retrieve a memory is only one cause of forgetting.   We may forget because the information was never in long-term memory in the first place.  The way information is encoded affects the ability to remember it.  If it is not coded effectively, we will likely forget the information in the future.  We may also forget specific information because we confuse it with other information which we have processed.  Information may also be forgotten simply because we have not thought about in in a long time.


The main reasons for forgetting include:

  1. Retrieval Failure

  1. Ineffective Encoding

  1. Interference

  1. Decay or Fading

  1. Motivated Forgetting

  1. Physical Injury or Trauma

  1. Organic Causes



Retrieval Failure

The inability to retrieve a memory is one of the most common causes of forgetting.   Retrieval failure is the failure to recall a memory due to missing stimuli or cues that were present at the time the memory was encoded.  This theory is that a memory is temporarily forgotten simply because it cannot be retrieved, but with the proper cue that information can be brought to mind.  For example, you might not remember the name of an actor in a movie, but his name might suddenly pop into your mind if you see a clip from a movie or if someone tells you the name begins with the letter “L”.  The movie or the letter would be acting as a cue for remembering the actor’s name.

With retrieval failure, the information still exists in memory, but just not readily available without specific cues.  A good retrieval cue will be consistent with the original encoding of the information.



Ineffective Encoding

The inability to remember information may sometimes have less to do with forgetting and more to do with the fact that it never made its way into long-term memory.  This type of forgetting is caused because the person did not pay attention in the first place.  Encoding failure or ineffective coding may prevent information from entering long-term memory, and thus the information never being stored to be able to be retrieved at a later date.  This may happen when you meet someone and later you cannot remember his or her name.  This is probably because you were preoccupied when you were introduced, and the name never made it to long term memory.

An example of ineffective coding can also be exhibited by trying to draw the back of a dime from memory.  Chances are you probably remember the shape and color, but probably could not draw a lot of the details even though you have seen hundreds of dimes over the course of your life.  The reason for this is that only details necessary for distinguishing dimes from other coins were encoded into your long-term memory.




Interference occurs when information gets confused with other information in our long-term memory.  The Interference theory suggests that some memories compete and interfere with other memories, and that memory loss occurs when information stored either before or after a given memory hinders the ability to remember it.  Essentially, cues for different memories may be too similar so a wrong memory gets retrieved.

There are two types of interference:

  1. proactive
  2. retroactive


Retroactive interference occurs when new information interferes with your ability to remember previously learned information.  Basically, it occurs when information works backwards to interfere with earlier information, so previously learned information is lost because it is mixed up with new and somewhat similar information.  For example, if you learn the state capitals this week, new information, such as world capitals, presented to you next week could cause you to become confused about the state capitals.

Proactive interference is when an old memory makes it more difficult to remember new information.  Current information is lost because it is mixed up with previously learned information that may be similar.   For example, you could have trouble learning a new math concept because it conflicts with preconceived notions or assumptions you may have regarding a similar topic.  For example, if you knew the rules of rugby then started learning the rules of football, you may have trouble remembering the rules of football because they conflict with the old information (rules of rugby).


Retroactive interference Occurs when newly learned information makes people forget old information.
Proactive interference Occurs when old information makes people forget newly learned information.




Decay Theory (Fading)

The Decay theory suggests that when something new is learned, a memory “trace” is formed in the brain and over time the trace begins to fade and disappear, unless it is occasionally used.   With this theory, if information is not occasionally retrieved, it will eventually be lost.

The Decay Theory explains the loss of memories from sensory and short-term memory, but not from long term memory.  When information fades from working and short-term memory, it disappears because the space was needed for other incoming information.  However, loss of long-term memories does not seem to depend on how much time has gone by since the information was learned.  Most theorists believe that once information has been transferred to long-term memory it is stored there permanently.  The theorists believe that the memory is always there, but the mental path to get to the memory has decayed.  For example, people might easily remember their first day of high school, but completely forget the last movie they saw.  This may be because of the strong links (emotion, visual, etc..) the person has to the memory.  This is why people who see a horrific accident, have a hard time forgetting it.

With the Decay theory, when information fades from long-term memory, what really fades is the link to that information, not the information itself.  The information is there, but we just cannot find it.  It is like a path in the woods that leads to a cabin; the more you use the path, the easily it is to find the cabin.  However, if you do not use the path for several years, the path will eventually fade.  The cabin will still exist, but will be harder to find because the path that leads there has faded.  Fading can be prevented by encoding the information as meaningfully as possible, by frequently retrieving it, and by using effective memory strategies.




Motivated Forgetting

The Motivated Forgetting theory suggests people forget because they push unpleasant thoughts and feelings deep into their unconscious.  People may actively work to forget memories, especially those of traumatic or disturbing events or experiences.

The two basic forms of motivated forgetting are:

Suppression: a conscious form of forgetting
Repression: an unconscious form of forgetting



Physical Injury or Trauma

Anterograde amnesia is the inability to remember events that occur after an injury or traumatic event.  Retrograde amnesia is the inability to remember events that occurred before an injury or traumatic event.


Organic Causes

Forgetting that occurs through physiological damage to the brain is referred to as organic causes of forgetting.  These theories encompass the loss of information already retained in long term memory or the inability to encode new information.  This is typically caused by the gradual slowing down of the central nervous system due to aging.  Examples include Alzheimer’s, Amnesia, and Dementia.


Related Links


Classification of Memory

Memory Process

Stages of Memory

Types of Memory

Memory Techniques

Encoding Information into Memory

Paying Attention and Memory

Types of Attention


Memorization vs understanding

The Learning Pyramid

Learning Theories

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s pyramid


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Types of Memory

Types of Memory

Memory is the mental function that enables you to acquire, retain, and recall sensations, impressions, information, and thoughts you have experienced.

types of memory


Types of Memory

There are three basic categories for Types of Memory:

Sensory Memory Holds information coming in through the senses for a period ranging from a fraction of a second to several seconds


Memory (STM)

Holds information we are actively thinking about for about seven items for no more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time without rehearsal.
Long-Term Memory (LTM) Holds information for a long period of time (almost permanently) with a virtually unlimited capacity


Stages of memory

However, there are several additional types of memory.

  1. Implicit vs. explicit memory
  2. Declarative vs. non-declarative memory
  3. Declarative vs. procedural memory
  4. Semantic vs. episodic memory



Types of Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory is the information we are currently aware of or thinking about.  It is the information that is held in our mind for a very short period of time before it is either dismissed or transferred to long-term memory.  Working memory can be thought of a distinct segment of short term memory.

Working memory – is a subpart of short-term memory applied to cognitive tasks that temporarily stores, organizes and manipulates information.




Types of Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is our brain’s system for storing, managing, and retrieving information.  We store different types of information (procedures, personal experiences, facts, language, etc.) in our long term memory.  There are three main distinctions among different types of memory:

  1. Implicit vs. Explicit memory
  2. Declarative vs. Procedural memory
  3. Semantic vs. Episodic memory





 Types of MemoryMemory


Implicit vs. Explicit Memory

Implicit memory is information that is remembered unconsciously and effortlessly.   Information unconsciously enters the memory to affects thoughts and behavior, thus allowing someone to do things by rote.  It is where previous experiences aid in the performance of a task without conscious awareness of these previous experiences.

Example: If you visited your aunt’s house when you were eight years old, then 20 years later you remember exactly how to get to the kitchen.


Explicit memory is conscious, intentional remembering of information.  Basically, it is information that you have to consciously work to remember.

Example:  Remembering a phone number or an address.


Explicit and implicit memory



Declarative vs. Procedural Memory

Declarative memory is recall of factual information such as dates, words, faces, events, and concepts.

Example: Remembering the capital of Connecticut, the rules for playing football, and what happened in the last game of the World Series involves declarative memory.

NOTE:  Declarative memory is usually considered to be explicit because it involves conscious, intentional remembering.


Procedural memory is recall of how to perform an action, task, or skill.

Example:  changing a light bulb or riding a bike

NOTE:  Procedural memory is usually considered implicit because people do not have to consciously remember how to perform actions or skills.



Semantic vs. Episodic Memory

Declarative memory can be segmented into two types: semantic and episodic

Semantic memory is recall of general facts.

Example: Remembering the capital of New Jersey and the batting average for Jackie Robinson.


Episodic memory is recall of personal experiences.

Example: Remembering what happened in the happened during a birthday party or baseball game.




Related Links


Classification of Memory

Memory Process

Stages of Memory

Memory Techniques

Causes of Forgetting

Encoding Information into Memory

Types of Attention

Memorization vs understanding

The Learning Pyramid

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s pyramid


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