Memory Processes

Have you ever wondered why you can remember some things but seemingly not others? Have you questioned why you remember how to swim or ride a bike, but not the exam you studied for last week? Well, the explanation lies in how the different memory processes work. While retrieving memories may seem instant, in reality, there is a 3 stage processing model of memory that all information passes through. We will look at each one in-depth as well as examine the psychological evidence of these memory processes. 

Memory Processes Memory Processes

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Table of contents
    • First, we are going to provide a quick overview of what the 3 stage processing model of memory is.

    • Then we'll explore encoding in more detail.

    • Next will be the different types of memory.

    • To conclude, we'll examine the psychological evidence for memory processes.

    Memory Processes, a girl writing in her diary remembering, StudySmarterFig 1. Memory processes allow us to retrieve and retain information.

    The 3 Stage Processing Model of Memory

    Melton (1963) discovered that there were three stages in the process of memory. These processes are encoding, storage and retrieval.

    Encoding is the conversion of the information into a format that can be stored by the brain.

    Storage is the ability to maintain information over time.

    Being able to access that ability when needed is retrieval.

    A great way to understand the 3 stage processing model of memory is to think of your brain as a computer. For computers, information is input via external devices like a webcam, keyboard or controller. For humans, the senses are the way we receive information. Through sight, hearing and touch etc.

    Computers have to store information, like documents you are working on. In the same way, our brains store the encoded information coming from the environment.

    Eventually, a computer will be used to output what was stored. This may look like a printout of an important document. Our brains can also output specific information we may need, this is known as retrieval.

    Memory processes, illustration of a brain, StudySmarterFig 2. Researchers have theorised different memory stored in the brain.

    Memory Encoding

    Encoding is the memory process that converts incoming information into a format that can be stored by the brain. It is a fundamental step in the creation of memories. Once the information has been encoded, it is then able to be retrieved from either the long-term memory or the short-term memory. There are three ways in which information is usually encoded:

    • Acoustic (Sound)

    • Visual (image)

    • Semantic (Meaning)

    Let's say that you're working on a document to hand in for homework. However, you feel like you have done enough for the day and want to continue working the next day. In this situation, you would hit "save" on the document to be able to access it the next day.

    In the simplest sense, memory encoding works in the same way. If the information has been encoded successfully, it will be able to be retrieved.

    Now imagine that you have just arrived at the airport in a country you have never visited. You're extremely hungry and decide to get some food. However, as you're about to pay, the cashier tells you that they don't accept your currency. You then have to convert your currency into one that is accepted.

    This is similar to memory encoding. The incoming information from external stimuli has to be converted into a format that the brain can store.

    Acoustic Encoding

    Acoustic encoding deals with the processing and encoding of sounds. When something is heard and processed into our memory, the memory will be based on the sound that was heard. The sound will be associated with that memory.

    Visual Encoding

    Visual encoding is the encoding and processing of images and visual sensory information. Since the memories are stored as images, when you try to retrieve that memory you will be able to visualise the information in the memory. For example, if you try to remember how many pens you left on your desk. You will most likely be able to 'see' your desk to count the pens.

    Semantic Encoding

    The word "semantic" refers to the meaning and interpretation of words. As you have probably guessed, semantic encoding deals with sensory input that has a specific meaning or can be placed into a certain context. This differs from other types of encoding which mainly deal with information that come from a sense e.g hearing.

    Different Types of Memory

    Before diving into the differences between the types of distinctions within the memory processes, you first have to be familiar with short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM). The distinction between these two will help you understand the intricacies of long-term memory.

    Different types of memory - memory processes

    Short-term memory is information from the environment that is paid attention to. This information is held for a short duration of about 18 seconds. The study performed by Peterson and Peterson (1959) supports the short-term memory being 18 seconds.

    This was found through the discovery that when participants had to recall trigrams, the recall rate dropped drastically after 18 seconds. This suggests that they hit the duration limit of short-term memory which was around 18 seconds.

    • Information in the short-term memory is coded acoustically. Think about when you have to write down a phone number. To make sure you don't mess up, you would usually repeat the numbers in your head so you don't forget. This is the same.
    • Information in long-term memory is coded semantically. Long-term memory is information that was in short memory but has been rehearsed. This could be through elaborative rehearsal where the information is given additional meaning. Alternatively, it could be through maintenance rehearsal which is the information being repeated consistently.

    Tulving (1972) proposed that long-term memory, unlike short-term memory was not one single store, but rather it was divided into 3 types of memory. These were:

    • Episodic
    • Semantic
    • Procedural

    Following further research, long-term memory was simplified into two distinct categories, procedural and declarative. Declarative memory was further divided.

    Procedural Memory

    Procedural memory is where memories of how to perform certain actions are stored.

    For example, knowing how to drive a car or ride a bike.

    Procedural memory does not involve conscious thought, when you ride a bike you aren't constantly trying to think of how to perform each action, you just do it. Unlike the previous types of memory, it is non-declarative as it can not be put into words easily.

    Declarative Memory

    Declarative memory focuses more so on the meaning behind particular events.

    For example, remembering your 16th birthday party.

    Declarative memory can be further divided into:

    • Episodic
    • Semantic

    Let's take a look at each one in more detail.

    Episodic Memory

    Episodic memory is responsible for storing information about personal events (episodes) that have happened to you.

    An example of this would be the memory of your first day at school or your favourite family trip you went on.

    This type of memory requires conscious thought because you have to try and remember the event and it is declarative as you can easily explain the memory in words.

    Semantic Memory

    Semantic memory is responsible for storing meaning, facts and information about the world.

    For example, if you were asked what the capital of The Netherlands is, knowing the answer is Amsterdam would come from your semantic memory.

    Semantic memory has to be consciously thought of to be accessed and like episodic memory, it is declarative because you can put the memory into words.

    Memory Processes, Image of Amsterdam, StudySmarterFig 3. Recalling the capital of a country is a form of semantic memory.

    Psychological Evidence of Memory Processes

    Let's take a look at 3 pieces of psychological evidence around memory processes.

    • Cohen and Squire (1980) found evidence for the distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge through amnesia patient research. Patients with amnesia usually find it extremely difficult to retain and create episodic and semantic knowledge. Episodic and semantic memories that they had before the onset of amnesia are usually lost but procedural memories seem to be unaffected. This suggests that there is a distinction between declarative and procedural memories since if there was not a distinction, both types of memories would be affected equally.
    • Bahrick, Bahrick, and Wittinger (1975) wanted to investigate a concept called 'very long term memory' (VLTM). They tested almost 400 participants ranging from ages 17 to 74. The participants were asked to write down the names of those who were in their graduating class. There were multiple conditions such as a free recall test and a photo recognition test.
      • The results showed that those who were tested within 15 years of graduating were 90% accurate in recalling names and faces. The number of people who graduated within 48 years, dropped to 80% for names and 70% for faces. This study thus indicated that the duration of long-term memory was potentially unlimited. This then also clearly suggested that there was a difference between the LTM and STM as the duration of STM was only 18 seconds.

    Memory Processes - Key takeaways

    • The 3 stage processing model of memory consists of encoding, storage and retrieval.
    • The 3 types of encoding that you need to know are acoustic, semantic and visual.
    • Long-term memory is divided into semantic, episodic and procedural memory.
    • Cohen and Squire (1980) discovered through amnesia patients that the disease affected episodic and semantic memory but not procedural memory, indicating that there is a distinction between them.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Memory Processes

    What are the three processes of memory

    The sensory register, short-term memory and long-term memory

    What are the 3 stages of information processing in memory

    Encoding, storage and retrieval

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