Memory Process

The 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 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

Encoding Memory

Memory Techniques

Causes of Forgetting

Encoding Information into Memory

Paying Attention and Memory

Types of Attention

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