Types of Memory in Psychology: How Do You Retain Information?

In this article, you will learn:

  1. What is Memory?
  2. Stages of Memory
  3. Types of Memory

Try to remember the factor that motivated you to search for this query a few minutes back! Now try to remember the time and the place when you first learned how to speak?

Likewise, take a step back and consider all the things that you are able to remember, the concepts that you are able to learn and retain and the challenges of life that you are able to resolve?

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What makes all of this possible is your memory. Memory is an important part of our cognitive system as it helps us to learn and retain new information, remember past events, solve everyday challenges, etc.

In this article, you will learn, what is memory, different types of memory in psychology and the crucial role memory plays in our everyday life.

What is Memory?

Memory is an important part of our cognition that allows us, humans, to store and retrieve information. Without memory, individuals would not be able to learn skills, remember factual information like details of an event, perform everyday tasks such as walking, reading, talking, etc.

There have been a number of studies conducted by psychologists that identify the important role memory plays in our cognition. One of the studies was conducted by Hermann Ebbinghaus towards the later part of 1885.

He came up with a lot of useful findings of memory that stand true even today. One of his findings suggested that we humans forget materials that we memorize quickly at first. However, as time passes, forgetting too happens at a relatively slower pace.

Furthermore, he concluded that if we distribute the amount of work that we do to memorize information over a period of time, we tend to memorize information in a far better way as compared to attempting to memorize all of it at once.

That is to say, he suggested adopting a distributive practice of memorizing information over the massed practice.

Stages of Memory

In order to understand memory, it is first important to understand how memory functions. As per one of the models of human memory suggested by Atkinson Shiffrin, human memory must be able to undertake three basic tasks. These include:

  • Encoding

This is the process via which data or information is converted into a form that can be entered into the memory.

  • Storage

Storage is the process of keeping information over varied periods of time.

  • Retrieval

This is the process through which information is located and accessed when required at a later period of time.

Types of Memory

Taking the above model of human memory into consideration, according to Atkinson and Shiffrin, any individual possesses three basic types of memory:

  • Sensory Memory,
  • Short-Term Memory, and
  • Long-Term Memory

Further, short-term memory further consists of working memory and long-term memory is further sub-divided into implicit and explicit memory. Implicit Memory is nothing but the memory for skills. Whereas explicit memory is a memory for factual information which includes both Episodic Memory and Semantic Memory.

Let’s have a look at each of these.

I. Sensory Memory

Sensory Memory stores information for a temporary period of time. Such information is received by the memory through various senses of an individual. Further, Sensory Memory has the capacity to store large amounts of information. Such information is stored for less than 1 second in case of vision and a few seconds in case of hearing.

The information from the Sensory Memory moves to the Short-Term Memory only when an individual focuses attention on such information. That is to say, the information captured by our senses that does not receive the attention of an individual tends to fade away or disappear very quickly.

II. Short-Term Memory

Short-Term Memory is a memory that stores small amounts of information for shorter periods of time typically 30 seconds or less.

For instance, when you tend to memorize the list of items told by your mother to be bought from the supermarket, your short-term memory comes at play. Today, psychologists refer to short-term memory as Working Memory.

Working Memory

Working Memory is defined as a memory system that holds and processes the information that you are using currently while reading this article. Now, you may wonder what is the proof that an individual’s cognition has working memory as one of the memory types.

Several research studies showcased the existence of this kind of memory system. The most important findings made in this regard is the ‘Serial Position Curve’. Let’s have a look at the concept of the Serial Position Curve to better understand the working memory system.

Serial Position Curve

As per this finding, when an individual attempts to memorize a list of words, he is able to better remember the words appearing in the beginning and towards the end of the list relative to the words that appear in the middle.

That is to say, a chunk of unrelated words positioned at first and last of the list are remembered with greater accuracy as compared to the words placed in the middle of the list.

This happens because there exist two types of memory systems: short-term and long-term memory. Short-Term memory retains information for a few seconds whereas long-term memory holds information for longer periods of time.

Given this, individuals typically remember the words appearing last in the list pretty well because of the ‘arecency effect’. This is because these words are still afresh in the working memory when individuals are asked to recall the words they memorized in the list.

Likewise, they tend to remember words appearing at the beginning of the list because these words have already become a part of their long term memory.

Needless to say, words appearing in the middle of the list are forgotten because they have disappeared from the working memory and at the same time did not enter the long term memory. Thus, individuals tend to remember only a few of the words appearing in the list.

How Much Information Can Your Working Memory Hold?

As per the research findings, working memory can retain only about seven distinct items that can vary two above or two below.

That is to say, if any information more than this enters our working memory, such a memory system gets overloaded and if any fresh information enters the working memory, the existing information disappears.

Now, the seven distinct items that can be retained can contain pieces of information that in some way are associated with each other and can be put into groups to form a meaningful whole. These meaningful units of information are called chunks.

Thus, when information is stored in the form of chunks in the working memory, more amount of information can be retained by such a memory system.

Let’s consider an example to understand how the process of chunking can enable you to store large amounts of information in your working memory.

See the following list of letters: ICSWOTRSICUAHWOB. How many letters can you memorize if you get to see or hear this list once? It is likely that you would remember not more than seven letters.

What if the same list of letters is presented in the following way:


Now, would you be able to remember more number of letters relative to the previous list? There are higher odds you did. This is because the letters are now presented as meaningful units, that is, initials of some famous organizations or places across the globe.

How Does Working Memory Process Information?

Baddeley in 1992 proposed a model depicting how working memory operates. As per this model, our working memory consists of three major components:

  • Phonological Loop

This component processes information associated with the sounds of words.

  • Visuospatial Sketch Pad

This part of the working memory processes visual and spatial information. That is to say, information with regards to the visual appearance of objects such as their size, shape, color, design, etc, and where exactly such objects are located in the space.

  • Central Executive

The Central Executive part oversees an coordinates the other two parts of the working memory.

III. Memory For Factual Information

Memory for factual information is the type of memory that stores information that can be remembered when needed at a later date and can be reported verbally.

Hence, such memory is also known as declarative or explicit memory as it enables you to recall details about a particular event at a future date when needed and express verbally details so recalled.

For instance, details with regards to the concepts you grasped in your last psychology class, details with regards to your friend’s birthday that took place last week, information that you need to perform specific skills such as walking, talking, dancing, writing, etc.

Now, memory for factual information further consists of two types of memories namely: Episodic and Semantic Memory. Let’s have a look at each of these to understand the types of memories that form part of your cognition system.

(i) Episodic Memory

This memory system enables you as an individual to retain the information you acquired at a particular time and place. As the name suggests, such memory allows you to go in the past and recall events, experiences, or thoughts that you had when such information was being presented to you.

There are various factors that impact episodic memory. These include:

  • Amount and Intervals at Which Practice is Undertaken

As an employee, you are required to remember a number of concepts, terms, processes, etc that act as the core of the job profile you are into. You may find at times that it is difficult for you to retain so many concepts and processes that you learn on the job.

You may forget things when you need them the most. Now, there are a number of ways you can improve your memory. One of the ways is the amount of practice that you undertake with regard to such concepts and processes.

The more you practice, the more you are able to retain information. However, this comes with a caveat. Larger gains take place initially when you try to learn the concept. However, as time passes improvement in memory slows down.

To fill this gap, you need to distribute your efforts to memorize the concepts over a period of time. For example, attempting to learn five concepts at a time would not be a better idea. However, learning a concept a day can help you memorize the concepts in a better way.

  • The Manner in Which Processing is Done

Another important factor impacting your episodic memory is the way in which you process the newly acquired information.

At times, you might find yourself in a situation where despite repeated reading of the concept, you are not able to retain much of the information contained in the concept.

However, if you delve deep, try to understand the meaning and associate the concept with the other information that you already process, chances are higher that you are able to remember the concept that you attempt to memorize.

The theory behind such a factor influencing your episodic memory is called ‘Levels of Processing View’. This view suggests that more deeply you try to process the given information, the more is its probability to be remembered.

That is to say that if you make little mental effort in understanding the concept in question such as simply repeating the text, there are fewer chances of such information being retained by you to be used in the future.

However, if you make a great effort to understand the concept in question deeply, such as its meaning, its relationship with the information that you already have, or the work in question, the chances of memorizing this information in a better way increase.

But there two questions that still exist when it comes to Level of Processing View. Firstly, it is challenging to objectively define a deeper level of understanding versus a shallow one.

Secondly, it is still not clear that a person can repeatedly read a text and not be conscious of or think about the meaning of the text.

  • Retrieval Cues

Retrieval Cues is yet another important factor that impacts your episodic memory. These cues are nothing but stimulants that are associated with the information retained in the memory.

These stimulants aid in retrieving information when such information cannot be recalled instantly. In other words, retrieval cues help you in remembering information when needed.

Studies suggest that the more the number of retrieval cues you have better is your ability to remember information that is stored in your episodic memory.

However, there is no guarantee that a large number of retrieval cues will enable you to remember the information that you should remember.

Thus, to use retrieval cues in a way that helps you memorize things better, there is deeper research done with regards to the same.

The following research findings make use of a principle known as the Encoding Specificity Principle. This principle holds that retrieval cues help in

  • Context-Dependent Memory

Context-Dependent Memory relates to a fact that information learned in one specific context or environment is easier to recall in a similar context or environment relative to a different one.

Say you try to grasp the concepts or processes required for your work in your room. While on the job, attempting to recall the information it would be helpful to imagine yourself back in your room where you tried to learn such concepts.

Now, doing so helps you better recall the concepts because it provides you with additional self-generated cues.

Not only this, physically going back to the location where you first learned the information is not necessary. Simply thinking about that context or location would be enough.

  • State-Dependent Retrieval

It’s not just the external cues that help your memory system to retain information and serve you with the same when needed. Your internal states can also play an important role in improvising your memory.

These internal states act as retrieval cues for information that is stored in your long term memory.

In other words, state-dependent retrieval refers to the fact that typically it is easier to recall information retained in the long-term memory when your internal state is similar to the state which existed at the time when you first learned the information.

Say, while sitting in your room grasping the concepts, you were having a cup of tea. Now, if you have a cup of tea while on the job, it will help you in recalling the information in a better way as it will serve you with retrieval cues that will ultimately improve your performance.

(ii) Semantic Memory

This is a type of memory system that is generic in nature. It stores general information about the world that one does not remember acquiring at a particular time or place.

Such a memory holds information that is generic in nature such as the meaning of words, events of everyday life, properties of objects, information that one learns during school years, etc.

Since large amounts of information are stored in the semantic memory of an individual, psychologists across the globe have focussed their attention on undertaking their research on how information is organized in semantic memory.

Organization of Information in Semantic Memory

When it comes to semantic memory, the information is organized as what is known as concepts. Concepts are nothing but a mental category for events and objects that are somehow similar to one another.

For instance, table, chair, cupboard, bed, etc come under the concept of furniture. There exist a number of views about how these concepts are formulated.

  • Network Model of Semantic Memory

As per this model, concepts exist as semantic networks in the semantic memory. Such networks showcase the relationships between the items that come under a particular concept. So in the network model of semantic memory, concepts showcase the relationships with other neighboring concepts.

  • Concepts As Prototypes

As per this view, concepts are formulated in the form of prototypes in semantic memory. Prototypes are nothing but an abstract and conceived depiction that captures an ideal member of a specific category of things.

For example, the prototype for a doctor in your semantic memory showcases the doctors that you have come across your life. The Prototype may represent that all doctors are typically middle-aged, intellectual, kind, and have grey strands.

  • Concepts as Exemplar

There exists another view that a particular concept is stored in the Semantic Memory, not as a prototype, that is, an average of a category of things but in the form of an exemplar. Thatis, an example of a particular category of things that can be easily brought to mind.

For example, whenever you come across the word stationery, you might of things like pen, paper, stick notes, etc. These are examples of the concept stationery and thus help you in deciding if the new object you come across is a part of stationery.

IV. Procedural Memory

Procedural Memory is a memory system that stores information one cannot easily put into words. Because one cannot verbally express the information stored in such a memory, it is also known as implicit memory.

For example, information that you need to undertake a skill such as playing the violin or singing a song, all form part of procedural memory.

Implicit means you know how to perform a particular activity but you are unable to put into words that information needed to perform a particular activity.

How To Study Procedural Memory?

You may wonder how is it possible to study procedural memory when one cannot put into words the information stored in such a memory. There are many ways in which psychologists study procedural memory. These are as follows:

(i) Priming Effect

Primming Effect refers to a research technique that includes individuals being exposed to stimuli just once which later enables him to recognize such stimuli even if he is unaware that such a thing is happening.

Priming Effect is also referred to as the difference between remembering and knowing. Remembering refers to the ability to report an event and the situation in which such an event took place.

Knowing, on the other hand, refers to the familiarity that one has with regards to a specific stimulus even if he or she cannot explicitly remember the same. Such familiarity also impacts our behavior.

In one of the studies conducted on the Priming Effect, one group of participants was exposed to adjectives related to the word honesty. These included adjectives like truthful, sincere, honorable, etc.

These words were showcased on the screen very quickly in a way that participants were unaware of such words as the words appeared blurred. Further, different words not related to honesty such as many, little, what, etc were showcased on the screen for another set of participants.

Sometime later, both the groups read the description of an imaginary person towards the end. They rated this imaginary person on various dimensions, some of which were related to honesty.

It was observed that the participants exposed to the words related to honesty rated this imaginary person higher on this trait relative to those who were exposed to other neutral words.

This proved that although participants were unaware of words related to honesty, they still rated the imaginary person higher on this trait due to a process known as the priming effect.

(ii) The Manner in Which Skills Are Acquired

Apart from Priming Effect, there is another piece of evidence that proclaims the existence of procedural memory. Such proof is provided by the manner in which skills are acquired.

When we begin to first learn a particular skill, we can think about what we are doing and can explicitly express our actions and what exactly are we learning. Eventually, as we happen to gain expertise over the skill, this explicit knowledge of skill is taken away by procedural knowledge.

That is to say, as time passes by, we lose the capability to put into words the actions that we perform. In other words, how are we able to pursue this skill.

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