How Does Memory Work in Psychology? (Answered!) | Iris Reading
How Does Memory Work in Psychology

How Does Memory Work in Psychology? (Answered!)

How Does Memory Work in Psychology

Probably the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions memory is that special moment in time. 

Maybe you remember a pleasant childhood experience or an important former acquaintance. However, memory encompasses much more than that. 

A memory works by gathering, saving, holding onto, and subsequently recovering information. You are able to read, walk, and identify the smell of your favorite food, thanks to memory. 

If you’re an inquisitive person looking to broaden your knowledge or a psychology student looking to learn more about the field, understanding the processes underlying memory can provide fascinating insights into human behavior and human cognition.

This article will explain everything you need to know about human memory. 

Let’s dive right in!

What are the stages of the memory storage process?

Our capacity to encode, retain, and remember information from our brains is what we refer to as memory.

But what does this signify? We’ll walk you through each stage of the process:

1. Encoding

Inputting information into the memory system is the process called encoding by which we receive information in our brains. Our brains label or code the sensory memories we gather from the environment. 

We group the data together with other data that is comparable to it and link fresh ideas to preexisting ideas. Information is encoded using both automatic and manual processing.

It’s possible that if someone asked you what you had for lunch today, you could recall this information without too much effort. 

The encoding of information, including time, position, frequency, and word meaning, is referred to as automatic processing. 

Automatic processing is typically carried out subconsciously. Another illustration of automatic processing is remembering the last time you studied for a test.

What about the test content you actually studied? You probably have to put a lot of time and effort into encoding that information. We call this “effortful processing.”

You need to put effort and focus into learning new abilities, like driving. It helps encode information about how to start a car, brake, handle a turn, etc. 

Once you learn to drive, you can automatically encode additional details about this skill.

2. Storage

Our brains change as a result of every experience. At first glance, the assertion can appear bold or even weird, but it is true. 

We create new impressions by encoding each of our experiences within the neurological system’s structures, and each of those impressions causes alterations in the brain. 

Experiences are said to leave memory traces, according to psychologists and neurobiologists. The brain must have a place to store memories; thus, in order to do so, the brain changes biochemically both internally and in its neural tissue. 

The brain “writes” a memory trace by altering its own physical structure, similar to how you may write yourself a note to remind you of something.

The underlying tenet is that experiences (things that happen in our environment) produce engrams via a memory consolidation process: brain alterations that take place after learning to produce the memory trace of an experience. 

Psychologists use “memory trace” to refer to the physical change in the nervous system that represents our experience. Neurobiologists study the specific neuronal processes involved in memory recall.

Despite the fact that it is a very helpful idea, we shouldn’t take the phrase “engram” or “memory trace” too literally. 

It’s important to realize that memory traces are not flawless data packets sleeping in the brain, ready for you to summon them to provide an accurate account of previous experience. 

Here are some things to note about memory traces: 

Memory traces are not flawless

Memory traces are not flawless packets of information, like video or audio recordings, which capture experience with high accuracy. We frequently have flaws in our memories, which would not exist if memory traces were perfect. 

Therefore, it is erroneous to believe that recalling information merely entails “reading out” an accurate account of the past. Rather, when we recall past events, we reconstruct them using our memory traces and current beliefs about what transpired. 

For instance, you might not be able to remember who pushed who first if you were attempting to remember two strangers who started a fight in a pub. Let’s assume, though, that you actually recall one of the guys holding the door open for you. 

When thinking back to the start of the fight, this knowledge (that one guy was friendly to you) may unintentionally sway your memory of what happened to favor the nice guy when you think back to the beginning of the fight. You might even end up creating false memories of the person.

Memory is, therefore, a combination of what you can actually remember and what you think truly happened. 

In other words, remembering is reconstructive rather than reproductive (a flawless replication or reproduction of the past). We recreate our past with memory traces.

Memory consolidation can be challenging

The period between learning and testing is known as the retention interval in psychology. During that period, memories may consolidate, helping with retention. However, other experiences can damage our memories. 

Remembering what you had for breakfast yesterday is a simple exercise. If you don’t eat the same thing every day, you could struggle to remember what you had for breakfast a week ago. 

The 20 breakfasts you have had since then have interfered in a retroactive fashion. 

Retroactive interference is the term for new activities that occur during the retention interval (i.e., the period of time between the breakfast 20 days ago and the present) and prevents the recall of a specific, older memory (i.e., the specifics of the breakfast from 20 days ago).

But the opposite is also possible; newer things can often make it difficult to remember older ones. The term “proactive interference” refers to when old memories obstruct the encoding of fresh ones. 

For instance, if you’ve ever learned a second language, your native language’s syntax and vocabulary may occasionally come to mind, making it difficult for you to speak the other language fluently. 

One of the biggest reasons people forget things is retroactive meddling. 

There may be some interruption between an event’s occurrence and an attempt to recall it. The effect itself always manifests when we retrieve memories, which brings us to the next topic.

3. Retrieval

You have put a lot of effort into encoding and storing some crucial information for your upcoming final exam. But how do you retrieve it now that you need it? Retrieval is the process of bringing information back into conscious awareness from memory storage. 

This is comparable to locating and opening a document that was previously saved to your computer’s hard drive. You can work with it once more because it is back on your desktop. 

External signals that relate to the memory, such as a picture, language, smell, or other stimuli, might serve as retrieval cues. Our capacity to recall information from long-term memory is essential to how we function every day.  

Everything from knowing how to drive to work to knowing how to perform your job once you arrive requires the ability to recall information from memory, including brushing your teeth and hair.

You can access your memory storage system in the following three different ways: 


When we talk about memory retrieval, recall comes to mind the most frequently since it refers to the ability to access stored information devoid of signals. 

Recall would be used, for instance, on an essay examination.


Recognition occurs when you recall information that you have previously learned after coming across it again. It involves a comparative process. 

In order to select the right response on a multiple-choice test, you rely on recognition. 

Here is another illustration. Consider a scenario where you attended high school ten years ago and are attending a ten-year reunion in your town. 

Even though you might not be able to remember every one of your classmates, you can probably identify many of them from their yearbook pictures.


The third kind of retrieval is relearning. It entails reviewing the knowledge you already have. 

For instance, you might not have had the opportunity to speak French, even though you learned it in high school. 

If it happens that your employer has now given you the chance to work at the Mexico City office. In order to get ready, you can enroll in a French refresher course. 

After 13 years of not speaking it, you’d be surprised at how rapidly you’ll take up the language; this is an example of relearning.

What are the types of memory?

Human memory is made up of various types of memory systems. Depending on what it is, different types of memory will store information differently.

Here are three different kinds of memory, each with its own unique mode of operation, yet they all work together to help you remember things:

Sensory memory

The first stage of memory is regarded as sensory memory. For a very brief period of time, the sensory memory must register a vast amount of environmental information. 

It enables you to retain sensory information long after the initial stimulus has passed. Sensation is another word for the complex process of receiving and processing information through your senses.

It serves as a buffer for the sensory input from hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting, which is precisely stored but only for a brief period of time. You receive these impulses through your senses, but it is your perception in the brain that interprets them.

The sensation process refers to how the senses process all of these stimuli before turning them into perceptions. 

There are five different sensory memory systems that make up the sensory memory: 

Haptic memory 

Information that was initially gathered by the sense of touch is recalled by the haptic memory. You probably remember the sensation of rain on your face. 

This is made possible by the memory’s haptic memory, which stores this kind of information.

Echoic memory 

The sensory memory that stores sound is the echoic memory, commonly referred to as the auditory memory. Your favorite music is probably still playing in your head as you read this.

This is a memory that has been stored after being gathered by the echoic system.

Iconic memory 

The sensory memory, known as the iconic memory, stores visual information after receiving it through your eyes. Your photographic memory temporarily saves the information you are reading while staring at your screen. 

You will probably remember what you are seeing right now if you close your eyes.

Olfactory memory 

The recall of smells is referred to as the olfactory memory. You might even recall the aroma of your favorite meal or flowers when thinking of it. 

Your olfactory memory has preserved this memory in your head.

Short-term memory

Your short-term memory, also called active memory, temporarily stores a small amount of information. This small amount of information is stored in the short-term memory in an active, easily accessible state. 

The short-term memory’s recollections have a shelf life of 10 to 15 seconds.

Consider a scenario where you are dialing a phone number while trying to remember it. You read a few numbers, make an effort to remember them, and then input the numbers. 

At this point, you may be recalling the numbers in your mind successfully, but eventually, you will forget them. In this scenario, you are using your short-term memory. 

The working memory

The working memory is a specific form of short-term memory. When performing cognitively complex processes like human learning and thinking, the working memory is the memory system in charge of storing and maintaining the information that is necessary. 

Focusing on memory-in-action, working memory has the capacity to store and use pertinent information while performing a task.

The distinction between working memory and short-term memory

Working memory and short-term memory have a lot in common because they both store information for only a few seconds. However, the two memory systems are separate. 

Working memory can store and retrieve information, whereas short-term memory merely stores information. When completing a task that requires you to recall and do something at the same time, you put your working memory to use. 

For instance, when you reply to something spoken in a currently active conversation.

Long-term memory

The memory system that retains knowledge for a longer period of time is called long-term memory. This time frame can be anything from a few minutes to a lifetime. 

Information travels from the sensory memory to the short-term memory and is then registered there before being eventually retained in the long-term memory. 

However, not every piece of information will be retained in your long-term memory. 

Rehearsals have the potential to turn short-term memories into long-term ones. This means that if you repeat something often enough, your long-term memory will eventually store it.

The following two memory systems make up long-term memories:

Explicit memory

Explicit memory is a conscious idea. Thus, it’s the type of memory you use to remember what you did the night before or to name aquatic creatures. When most individuals think of memory, they are actually referring to explicit memory. 

Both semantic and episodic memory are sources of explicit memory. Semantic memory is about general knowledge and understanding of certain concepts.

However, episodic memory is responsible for storing information about specific personal experiences or events. 

You store personal memories, like your favorite holiday, in episodic memories. 

But a country’s capital or the items on your grocery list are stored in semantic memory.

Both episodic and semantic memory work hand in hand to enable us to recall explicit information. 

Implicit memory

The implicit memory is what you aren’t consciously striving to recall; it is an unconscious memory. You store these memories unintentionally and unconsciously. 

Priming, perceptual learning, category learning, emotional learning, and procedural memory are all made possible by implicit memory.

Procedural memory is a part of implicit memory. It is in charge of keeping track of instructions on how to carry out tasks like walking, speaking, and biking.

What are the theories of memory?

Several theories have been put forward in the psychology community to explain the intricate mechanisms that underlie human memory. 

These theories offer conceptual frameworks for comprehending the encoding, storage, and retrieval of data. 

Here are the most popular:

Atkinson-Shiffrin Model

Richard Atkinson and Shiffrin put up the multi-store model, a significant memory theory, in 1968. According to this paradigm, information can be found in one of the three states of memory: sensory, short-term, or long-term stores. 

The more we practice information in our minds, the more it progresses through the stages; yet, it may go away if we do not give it enough attention. 

The senses provide information for memory; for example, the eyes may see a picture, the nose’s olfactory receptors may detect the aroma of coffee, or we may hear music.

We only need to retain a small piece of this stream of information because it contains a great deal of information characterizing our environment and is stored in the sensory memory. 

Because of this, the majority of sensory information quickly “decays” and is forgotten. 

When something catches our attention, and we think about it, this process is known as rehearsal. As a result, the knowledge is promoted to short-term memory storage, where it will be kept for a few hours or even days in case we need it.

Our short-term memory, which has a limited capacity, allows us access to a brief storage of information that is pertinent to our present situation.

Therefore, in order to retain information for a longer period of time, we need to practice it further in our short-term memory. 

This may only entail reflecting on a former incident or learning a fact by heart, which involves repeatedly thinking or writing about it. 

In long-term memory storage, where Atkinson and Shiffrin felt it may survive for years, decades, or even a lifetime, rehearsal further promotes this important information. 

Levels of Processing Theory

Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart disagreed with the multi-store model’s explanation for memory; therefore, they put up an alternate theory known as the levels of processing effect in 1972. 

In this approach, memories are not stored in three different locations; rather, the intensity of a memory trace is determined by how well a stimulus has been processed or practiced. 

In other words, our memories of things last longer the more we think about them (Craik & Lockhart, 1972). 

According to Craik and Lockhart, when we make an observation, two different forms of processing happen: superficial processing and deep processing.

A stimulus is typically forgotten when it is processed superficially, such as by focusing only on the overall sight or sound of something. This explains why we might pass a lot of people on the street while commuting in the morning but forget every single face by lunchtime.

On the other hand, deep (or semantic) processing includes elaborative rehearsal, which entails concentrating on a stimulus in a more thought-out manner, such as contemplating the meaning of a phrase or the effects of an event. 

For instance, reading a news report only requires shallow processing; however, thinking about how the story will affect people requires deep processing, increasing the likelihood that you will remember the story’s specifics.

Working Memory Model

Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch found the short-term memory (STM) store to be overly simplistic. 

Therefore, they proposed a working memory model, which they believe replaces the STM and offers a compelling explanation of how sensory information is filtered and made available for recall based on its importance to us.

The working memory model postulated two components: an articulatory-phonological loop (the “inner ear”) and a visuo-spatial sketchpad (the “inner eye”). 

Each of these focuses on a different type of sensory information. 

Both operate independently of one another, but a central executive controls them and gathers and manipulates data from the other parts in a manner akin to how a computer processor manipulates data stored separately on a hard disk.

The visuo-spatial sketchpad, according to Baddeley and Hitch, manages visual data, which includes: 

  • Our observations of our surroundings
  • Spatial information
  • Our comprehension of the size and location of things in our environment 
  • Their position in reference to ourselves

By doing so, we can interact with objects—picking up a cup or avoiding running into a door, for instance.

A person can recall and think about visual information that has been stored in their long-term memory with the help of a visuo-spatial sketchpad. Your capacity to picture someone’s face when trying to remember them requires your visuo-spatial sketchpad.

We hear sounds and speech thanks to the articulatory-phonological loop. We can use the ‘inner voice’ technique to practice auditory memory traces, which can help us remember things better.

Miller’s Magic Number

American cognitive researcher George A. Miller questioned the short-term memory’s capacity before the working memory model was developed. 

Miller cited the findings of earlier memory experiments in a renowned 1956 paper published in the journal Psychological Review, coming to the conclusion that people typically can only hold seven chunks of information (plus or minus two) in their short-term memory before having to process them further for longer storage. 

For instance, the majority of people could recall a 7-digit phone number but would find it difficult to recall a 10-digit number. As a result, Miller labeled the number 7 +/- 2 as “magical” in terms of how we conceptualize memory.

When a friend just spoke a sentence containing dozens of individual chunks, how are we able to recall the whole thing? 

Miller, who has a background in linguistics and studied speech at the University of Alabama, knew that the brain could group pieces of information into units called chunks and that these chunks counted towards the STM’s seven-chunk limit. 

For instance, a big word is made up of a lot of letters, which then sound out a lot of phonemes. 

The human mind “records” a word so that it can be remembered as more than just a 7-letter word by grouping the bits of information together. By using this method, we can increase our capacity for memory to a list of seven distinct words.

Both the short-term store in the multi-store model and Baddeley and Hitch’s working memory are covered by Miller’s knowledge of the limitations of human memory. 

If you want to retain information for an extended period, you need to practice it consistently instead of relying on brief exposure alone.

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Memory Decay

According to the Decay theory, memory deterioration results from the simple passage of time. As time goes on and memory and memory strength deteriorate, information becomes less accessible for subsequent recall. 

An individual leaves behind a neurochemical “memory trace” whenever they learn anything new. But as time passes, this trace gradually disappears. 

Actively rehearsing fresh information is thought to be a key element in preventing this temporal decrease. 

Despite the widespread belief that neurons inevitably die off as we age, some older memories can be more powerful than the majority of more recent ones. 

As a result, the decay theory primarily affects the short-term memory system, which means that older memories (in long-term memory) are frequently more resilient to shocks or other physical attacks on the brain. 

It is also believed that forgetting cannot simply occur with the passage of time and that decay theory must account for certain processes that take place as time goes on. Edward Thorndike originally used the phrase “decay theory” in his 1914 book The Psychology of Learning. 

This idea is based on Hermann Ebbinghaus’ memory research from the late 19th century, which suggests that memory traces fade over time if not accessed and used.

Peterson set out to measure the lifetime of memories in the wake of Miller’s “magic number” study addressing short-term memory loss and capacity. They wanted to know how long memory would remain without being repeated until it was fully lost.

The experiment followed these processes: 

  • Participants were given a list of trigrams—meaningless lists of three letters (such as GRT, PXM, and RBZ)—to remember in an experiment involving a Brown-Peterson task. 
  • They were then instructed to count down starting at a certain number while being asked to recall the trigrams at varied intervals after recalling them.
  • While the interference task prohibited rehearsal, which allowed the researchers to evaluate the endurance of short-term memory more reliably, the use of such trigrams makes it impossible for participants to give meaning to the data in order to help them encode them more easily.
  • Even though almost every participant could remember the trigrams at first, after 18 seconds, recall accuracy dropped to just 10%. 

Peterson’s study highlighted the surprising shortness of memories in short-term storage before deterioration impairs our ability to recall them.

Flashbulb Memories

There are some historical moments that a lot of people seem to remember. You’ll probably be able to recall the incident if you have extremely vivid memories of it. 

For instance, when many people heard about the New York City terrorist attacks in 2001, a specific memory of what they were doing at the time they received the news appears to have formed.

In 1977, psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulik released a paper explaining flashbulb memories, which are vivid and extremely precise pictures that are frequently (but not always) formed during times of shock or stress. 

When we learn of such situations, we are able to recall minute details about our individual circumstances while performing routine tasks.

Furthermore, an incident need not have personally affected us for it to have an impact on us and result in the formation of a flashbulb memory.

What is the importance of the memory system?

Our daily lives depend heavily on memory, which is also extremely important for many other areas of human functioning. 

The following are some crucial areas where memory is significant:

Recalling our personal identity and autobiographical information

Personal experiences and autobiographical information are stored in memory, which helps us create and preserve a sense of who we are. It lets us remember previous experiences, connections, and important moments that shaped our unique personalities. 

Autobiographical memory aids in the construction of a cohesive life story and promotes psychological health in general.

Learning and education

Learning and obtaining new information both require memory. We can build on prior knowledge and use it in new contexts by being able to encode and retain information from educational experiences. 

Without memory, learning would be very difficult since we wouldn’t be able to retain and apply new ideas, facts, and skills.

Read also: Are There Exercises to Improve Memory?

Problem-solving and decision making

Making decisions and solving problems both heavily rely on memory. We can access pertinent information to help us make informed decisions and effectively handle problems by relying on our prior experiences and the knowledge we have stored. 

Memory enables adaptive decision-making by allowing us to spot patterns, recall tactics, and assess future outcomes in light of previous experiences.

Cognitive functioning and mental health

Overall cognitive function and healthy memory are closely related. Memory deficiencies or impairments all impact attention, language, reasoning, and other cognitive processes. 

But on the other hand, preserving good memory health through activities like mental stimulation and sufficient sleep can support general cognitive well-being and possibly lower the risk of cognitive decline and some neurological diseases.

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Social interactions and relationships

Memory is essential for forging and maintaining social connections. It makes it possible for humans to recognize and recall people’s faces, names, and personal histories, promoting social interactions and fostering relationships. 

Furthermore, the ability to recall common experiences and shared memories strengthen interpersonal ties and promotes a sense of belonging among families, communities, and cultural groups.

Adaptive functioning and daily living

Our daily lives depend on memory since it helps us remember things like appointments, tasks, habits, and directions. It makes it easier for us to move around in our surroundings, remember crucial information, and go about our daily lives. 

Without memory, our capacity for autonomous and effective everyday functioning would be seriously jeopardized.

How do I improve my memory?

Whether it’s to strengthen cognitive abilities, improve academic achievement, or just retain vital information more effectively, many people aim to improve their memory. 

The following techniques can help you improve your memory:

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Maintaining an active lifestyle helps enhance memory. This entails engaging in regular exercise, eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet, adhering to a regular sleep pattern to receive enough rest, and properly managing stress levels. 

These lifestyle choices support ideal memory performance, can improve memory, and can help you avoid Alzheimer’s Disease.

Chunk information

Chunking information, often known as the memory tree method, is a classification or grouping technique. For instance, use a memory tree to connect a group of facts in your head so that you can remember them. 

Starting with the main branches, add leaves next. Label each branch and leaf in a way that is meaningful to you, and logically structure the information, or “leaves.” 

Read also: What Is The Chunking Memory Strategy?

Utilize spaced repetition

The spaced repetition technique involves refreshing your memory by reinforcing knowledge just as it starts to fade. You’re more likely to recall the information when you need it if you reinforce it frequently.

Some people use flashcards to practice this technique, going through them at regular intervals and grouping them into piles according to how tough the material is.

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Use mnemonic rhymes

The practice of using words or rhymes to symbolize information is known as mnemonics. Making a rhyme that you recite or sing helps with memory by providing aural cues. 

Mnemonic rhymes use words with similar sounds to match information with important details. For instance, this rhyme can help you recall how many days are in each month:

April, June, September, and November all have 30 days. The rest of the months have 31 days. February stands alone.

Make use of meditation

According to studies, meditation enhances the brain’s capacity for focused attention on smaller details. Your brain can remain healthy by engaging in mindfulness practices such as quieting your thoughts and concentrating on the present. 

If staying motionless for more than a few minutes is difficult for you, take a walk to relax. Being with nature can help you relax and focus on the moment.

Play brain games

Like any other muscle in your body, your brain needs to be exercised. Your brain must use logic to solve puzzles and play logic games. Regular challenges give your brain a workout while keeping it engaged. 

Use physical games like puzzles or digital brain games with memory or pattern recognition. 

There are several websites and applications that provide regular brain activities and a community of people who share the same goal of maintaining a strong memory.

Write down information

When we write something down, our brains form “images” of the written material. This enables us to remember the whole picture rather than the individual elements. 

As a result, while examining information, we only need to retain one large piece of information rather than numerous smaller ones.

Every individual has a unique learning style. For visual learners, writing things down can be helpful. It can also be helpful for auditory learners. However, it might not be as successful. 

Create flashcards

Write a key phrase or word on one side of the flashcard and, on the other, its description. If you are learning a new language, for instance, connect the word to its meaning or purpose. 

Read the keyword and see if you can remember the details written on the card’s reverse side. 

Repeating this activity creates the neural connections required for effective information retention. 

Create acronyms

Another mnemonic device to improve your memory is acronyms. Use the acronym NAME, for instance, to help you remember the names of people you encounter or other crucial information. 

Here is an illustration of how the NAME acronym functions:

  • Notice: Consciously and purposefully observe details about someone, such as their eye or hair color.
  • Ask: It’s frequently simpler to remember the specifics when you actively participate in a conversation by asking questions. 
  • Mention: Repeating the names or other details out loud will help you remember them. This uses our other senses to support the memory.  
  • Envision: Imagining is a step in the mnemonic process that entails connecting a person’s name to the visual features of their face.

Get more restful sleep

Lack of sleep has a negative impact on memory and other cognitive functions. Getting the necessary quantity of good sleep promotes the development of procedural memory, which influences the acquisition of new skills and facilitates recalling previously stored information. 

Your brain reorganizes memories while you sleep, creating stronger connections between them. Additionally, your brain makes these connections at this time, which fosters creativity while you’re awake.

Do you want to learn more about how you can enhance your memory? Check out our article on How Do You Train Your Memory Like a Memory Champion

Takeaway: Improve your memory and unleash the full potential of your cognitive power

How memory works in cognitive psychology deeply influences our ability to recall the past and how we think today. Encoding, storing, and retrieving information requires each step, starting with sensory memory and continuing with long-term memory. 

In exploring this topic, we hope you have gained important insights into human behavior, learning, and decision-making. 

Are you now eager to maximize your memory potential and unlock the secrets of this incredible cognitive function? 

Take a step further on your memory journey. Enroll in this course on maximizing memory and discover practical techniques to boost your memory power. 

Don’t miss the opportunity to use your memory to the fullest extent possible.

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