Types of memory: characteristics, operation and examples

Memory is the power of the brain to recall past experiences or information. In this faculty of the mind, information is encoded, stored and retrieved. In the broadest sense, there are three types of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory .

Normally, when we think of the word “memory,” we mean long-term memory, like remembering the New York Giants quarterback. But our minds also have short-term and sensory memory, and not all memories are the same; different types work in different ways. Read on to learn how to differentiate between types of memory , as well as their characteristics, workings, and examples.

Sensory memory

Short term memory

Long term memory

DefinitionSensory memory is our shortest form of memory and acts as a buffer for stimuli received through the five senses.Short-term memory is the part of our brain that retains information until we need to remember it. It is a little less transient than the sensory one, but it still disappears after a few minutes.Long-term memory is the brain’s system for storing, managing, and remembering information. They include anything from an event that happened five minutes ago to something 20 years ago.
TypesIconic memory, echoic memory, haptic memory and other sensory memories.Short-term memory / working memoryExplicit memory, declarative memory, episodic memory, semantic memory, implicit memory, procedural memory, auditory memory, visual-spatial memory.
ExamplesWe wave a flare in the air and see the trail of light behind it.We make a mental list of what to buy as we run to the supermarket.We remember what the way from the hotel to the beach is like based on last year’s vacation.

Sensory memory

Sensory memory is our shortest form of memory . It is very fleeting, and lasts no more than a flash. It acts as a buffer for the stimuli received through the five senses . These images are accurately preserved, but only for a brief moment, usually less than half a second.

Have you ever waved a flare in the air and seen a trail of light behind it? That is sensory memory: an image, a scent, a sound. As it sounds, sensory memory works with our senses to remember some quick flash of information.

There are three main subcategories of sensory memory:

Iconic memory

This refers to immediate visual memories . Iconic memory is also very, very fleeting. This is how the brain remembers an image it just saw moments ago, as something that appeared on your computer screen for less than a second. Your brain will “remember” what it saw very briefly, even after the image disappears. Beyond the 0.5 second mark , everything you “remember” goes into short-term memory.

Echoic memory

Sometimes referred to as auditory sensory memory, echoic memory refers to audio memories . In general, echo memories are stored slightly longer than iconic memories – about four seconds . If you hear a few notes of a melody, you may be able to hum them immediately after it ends. However, if you were asked for the melody again in a few minutes, you may not be able to recall it unless it is transferred to short-term memory.

Haptic memory

This refers to memories that involve the sense of touch . As with iconic and echoic memory, haptic memory is equally fleeting. If you run your hand over a rough surface, you will remember the exact sensation you felt for a few seconds. After that, the memory must be encoded into short-term memory for later retrieval.

Other sensory memories

What about the other two senses: olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste)? Although we often hear that our sense of smell is our strongest link to the past, ironically the above three subcategories are studied more extensively in the context of sensory memory.

Whether it’s sight, smell, or taste, remember that sensory memories are fleeting . They are nothing more than a flash, the flash of a flare or an image passing across the screen.

Short term memory

Short-term memories are a little less fleeting than sensory memories, but they still disappear after a few minutes . The tag is quite adequate, given its function. Short-term memory is the part of our brain that retains information until we need to remember it. If we make mental lists before running to the supermarket, it is our short-term memory that will help us remember the fabric softener or the folding chair.

Short-term memory, often interchanged with the term ” working memory, ” is very temporary. It has a low capacity, as the information being processed will be quickly discarded or entered into our long-term memory bank. It is something of a precursor to long-term memory , which has many different facets with varied functionality.

This is why you can continuously repeat a number as you walk to your phone; is saving in your short term memory.

Short-term memory example

Juan parked in a metered area on Alem Street and had to remember his parking spot number as he approached to put money in the parking meter. Once he got the ticket, he put it on his windshield and crossed the street to meet his friends for dinner. If you asked him what his parking spot number was in the middle of dessert, he might not be able to tell you.

Long term memory

Long-term memory is the brain’s system for storing, managing, and remembering information . It is very complex and has different functionalities. Because sensory memories only blink for less than a second and short-term memories only last a minute or two, long-term memories include anything from an event that occurred five minutes ago to something 20 years ago.

There are many different forms of long-term memories. Sometimes they are conscious , which forces us to think actively to remember a fact. Other times they are unconscious , they just appear without an active attempt to remember, such as recalling the route from home to work without actively thinking about it.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common forms of long-term memory:

Explicit memory

Sometimes called conscious memory , it is the intentional recall of information . For example: every time Karen fills out an application for college, she must consciously remember her full address, phone number, and social security number.

Declarative memory

A variant of explicit memory, it involves the retention and recall of important facts, such as dates, events, and information . For example: when August rolls around, Karen knows it’s time to buy a birthday card for her best friend Sara. August 30 is Sara’s birthday.

episodic memory

A form of declarative memory, this includes the ability to recall first-hand experiences from her life . For example: Karen’s mom calls to ask what she did over the weekend. She must think back and remember the frisbee tournament on Saturday, as well as the church meeting she attended on Sunday, to tell her mother about them.

Semantic memory

Also a form of declarative memory, semantic memory refers to the storage of vocabulary, key facts, names, and general knowledge in memory . For example: Karen’s mother loves the NY Giants, but she can never remember the quarterback’s name. Julia has to constantly remind him that his name is Eli Manning.

Implicit memory

Sometimes referred to as ” unconscious memory ,” implicit memory includes the retention of information from a moment in time that cannot be specifically remembered . When some things just “ring to you.” For example, Sara’s parents took her on a family vacation to the Jersey Shore when she was eight years old. Much later, during spring break from college, Sara returned to the Jersey Shore with her sisters and remembered exactly how to get to the boardwalk.

Procedure memory

A form of implicit memory, procedural memory is the ability to remember how to do things , from riding a bike to driving a car. For example: Sara used to get into her car and go through a series of security checks before driving. Are your mirrors positioned correctly? Is the seat belt fastened? Now, she just walks in and performs those routine checks automatically without even thinking about them.

Auditory memory

Auditory memory helps us retain information based on the sounds we hear . When a child is learning about the sounds that letters make, it is his auditory memory that will allow him to remember that the letter “B” makes the sound we hear in the word “beauty.”

Visual-spatial memory

Meanwhile, visual-spatial memory is what will help the child to associate an image of a basketball with the word “ball . ” A child’s ability to label that round, orange object as a basketball will depend on the visual cues that have been given.

Everything is in the mind

Isn’t the mind a fabulous study? It serves many functions. She works as a receptionist in the form of sensory memory, admitting flashes in the mind. It acts as a judge and jury, deciding which facts go in and out quickly through the short-term memory bank or move into long-term memory.

The mind stores information for us to reach out and take in, whether we put it there intentionally or not even realize it is there. The next time something “rings true” to you, give your mind a pat on the back. With a better understanding of how our memory works, try these six ways to increase your vocabulary. A strong memory is essential for a strong vocabulary.

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