Memory Types & Functions

Memory TypesIn this page, we will see the memory types and their functions. You can find information about memory processes and also some theories.

The ability to recall is an essential function of our minds. Its contribution to our evolution is significant. Other than that, it plays a vital role in the way we learn and adapt to the environment.


We would say that the ability to remember completes the learning process and is interrelated with it. If any of both were missing, then there would be no evolution, no new knowledge, and no civilization.

Memory process is a collection of three sub-processes.

o Encoding

o Storing

o Retrieval

I think it’s obvious what each one does. Encoding is the initial process when the mind perceives and registers the information. Storing is to keep the encoded information in a good shape so to be remembered easily over the time. And lastly the Retrieval process recovers the stored information on the individual’s demand.

Memory Types

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There are three basic memory types.

o Sensory Memory

o Short-term or Working Memory

o Long-term Memory

Let’s see them in detail.

Sensory Memory


The term Sensory refers to the initial process of storing information that is perceived through our senses.  It lasts for a subtle period and it is regularly replaced by new data, as our senses work continuously.


Sensory memory is divided into five memory types, one per each sense.The following example will clear out how the sensory type of memory works.


Let’s suppose that you browse a magazine fast but you don’t focus in its pages. If you try to remember something you saw, most probably you are unable to. You realize that you cannot remember precisely a whole page, a title or a picture.


As your eyes scan the magazine’s pages, your mind is registering fast and briefly the incoming information. While you continue doing this, your mind receives new information and replaces the old one. This type of sensory memory is called iconic and lasts for about one second. Then, it gets replaced by new sensory data.


This memory type relates not only to the vision but all the human senses. Another kind of sensory memory which also got a lot of attention is the one called echoic. Obviously, the sensory organs here are the ears. Echoic type operates just like the iconic, but it lasts a little longer, about 4 seconds.


As you look at the magazine, something may get your attention. While you stay on the page more time to read it, the Short-term or Working memory is activated.


Short-term or Working Memory


Short-term memory is an expression used by scientists when they discovered this memory type. Their intention was to define the ability to store information for a short time.


The new term, working memory, is used now. It is an expanded definition of the short-term memory, including also the manipulation of the temporary stored information.


We can hold information in the working memory by repetition. A classic example is when you need to remember a phone number until you find a piece of paper to write it down; you are repeating it to yourself. If something distracts you, then you can easily forget the number. A general characteristic of working memory is that you will misremember after a short period. 


Another aspect of the working memory is that it has a limited capacity. Various tests can easily prove it. The most common test is to have a large list of items while subjects try to remember as many items from this list as possible.


The psychologist George Miller has concluded that the capacity of the working memory type is limited to about seven items at a time. Nevertheless, more recent research tried to separate the processing capability from the recall ability and resulted that the capacity is lower than seven.


The working memory is essential when we are thinking. For example, when you try to solve a simple mathematical problem in your mind, you need to do first some calculations before reaching in the solution. These calculations are stored temporarily in the working memory. It becomes apparent now why the short-term definition is not used anymore for this type of memory.


Finally, this memory type is closely correlated with intelligence. Some studies resulted that the higher the capacity of the working memory the more intelligent the individual is.


Long-term Memory

Long Term Memory

The last of memory types is a little more complex than the previous. Long-term memory points to the ability to remember things for a very long time or the entire lifespan.


Memories such as the movie you watched yesterday, playing basketball, academic or encyclopedic knowledge and the date that you got your degree, are all set in the long-term memory.


In contrast with the two previous memory types, this type has no capacity limitations. You can get unlimited new knowledge and skills throughout your life. When you train your brain by acquiring new knowledge and abilities, they say that you are also slowing down the brain’s aging process.


There are some theories about how the mind stores information into the long-term memory. Initially, the scientists supported the view that information was stored in sequence, passing first from the working to the long-term memory.


According to another theory, the memory types are independent systems and can function in parallel. Knowledge seems to be stored in both of them at the same time.


Although the first approaches to the long-term memory was the existence of one single brain system, scientists now believe that three independent systems constitute the long term memory. They distinguish the following:

o Episodic

o Semantic

o Procedural


The first system is dependent on time and place. Recollections that are retrieved from the episodic structure are passed events. These are characterized by when and where they happened. A beautiful trip to the Caribbean when you got married is a good example. These are episodes of your life, and that’s why this memory system is called episodic.


The semantic system refers to stored information that is related to encyclopedic knowledge and facts. An example of this kind of information is the fact that the earth is moving around the sun. It’s obvious that the semantic system is independent of the time and place where you absorbed the information.


The memory systems that we saw are both declarative, which means that when you learn or recall something you do it verbally. The third and last system is non-declarative.


The procedural system holds all of your skills. As a non declarative type of memory, it is impossible to learn a new skill by using verbal instructions. You have to try it and get some practical experience of the new ability to master it. No matter how many times I describe to you how to ride a bike if you never have tried it, it is highly unlikely not to fall on your first attempt. It may require considerable amounts of effort and time to learn a new skill and store it in the procedural system.


In many cases, recall of such memories is not conscious. An example of this is your driving skill. Can you remember the first time you held a wheel? Your head was full of thoughts such as what to do next while you were driving. Now you can drive without a single thought about it. You recall your driving technique from the procedural system subconsciously.


The above examples of recollections belong to a single recall system. Some skills may be stored in all long-term memory’s systems. Mental skills is an example. The way you learn is using not only the procedural system but also a sort of declarative memory. The fact is, although the three systems are independent, it seems there is an interaction between them.

There are still a lot to discover, a lot to learn.

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18 comments on “Memory Types & Functions

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