Sensory Memory: Definition, Examples & Types

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Chris Clause

In this lesson you will learn what sensory memory is, how it relates to other types of memory, and about two specific types of sensory memory called echoic and iconic memory.

We also recommend watching Factors Influencing Memory: Definition, Types & Examples and Sensory Training: Definition, Uses & Examples

What Is Sensory Memory?

According to the Atkins-Shiffrin theory, memory involves 3 distinct but related processes. Sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory together provide the avenue for environmental information to be received by the senses and either put to use, stored for later use, or ignored altogether. Most people associate memory processes exclusively with the brain, and for the most part that is accurate. What is responsible for getting the information from the senses to the brain? That's where sensory memory becomes so important.

Our senses are directly linked to our central nervous system, which is comprised of our spinal cord and brain. The process of getting information from our senses to our brain happens very quickly. In fact, it happens so quickly that we are not always consciously aware of everything that is being picked up by our senses. Sensory memory allows environmental information to be retained, sometimes for as little as a fraction of a second, as it makes its way into our consciousness.

Our sensory systems are constantly receiving and processing an incredible amount of information at any given moment. As we go through our day it is virtually impossible to consciously recognize all of this information. Stop and think for a moment about what you are doing right now. Your eyes are taking in the visual information of the light in the room, the letters and words that comprise this lesson and all the things that are going on in your peripheral vision, simultaneously. Even if you're in a relatively quiet room, if you stop and really listen you will hear that there are quite a few noises and sounds occurring all around you.

Not only does sensory memory absorb a tremendous amount of environmental information, it also provides our brains with a lot of details in a short amount of time. Using the examples mentioned above, you are not only seeing and recognizing objects or hearing and recognizing sounds around you. Your eyes are seeing colors, texture, size, and shape. Your ears are hearing tone, pitch, and loudness. A whole host of detailed information must be taken in through our senses very rapidly.

It's pretty amazing how quick and efficient our sensory systems are when you think about it. Sensory memory allows our brains to make quick reactions and judgments without having to wait on the information to be processed by conscious thoughts. Quite often the information taken in through the senses does end up being consciously processed and used in short-term memory or stored in long-term memory, but thanks to sensory memory our brains can rapidly sense and perceive a host of environmental information while our brains decide what is useful and what is not.

Examples and Types

Sensory memory plays an important role in receiving and processing environmental influences from all five senses. However, visual and auditory information tend to receive the most attention. In fact, researchers have uncovered certain unique characteristics of sensory memory within these two sensory systems that distinguishes them from one another and the other sensory systems.

Echoic memory is a specific type of sensory memory involved in processing auditory information. Whereas, iconic memory is a type of sensory memory that is unique to our visual system.

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