Joseph J. Green
Northern Arizona University
There are many examples of how memories are encoded. Throughout the experience from sensing something to storing it to long term memory, information must travel through three types of memory. Some of these memories must be intentionally encoded in order to do anything with them, or else they will be lost. Some memories may be automatically be transferred to long term memory, sometimes without the knowledge of the person who sensed whatever it was that was remembered.
The three types of memory in which sensory information must pass through are sensory, short term, also known as working memory, and long term memory (Ipfw.edu, n.d.). Sensory information is stored as raw data where it is not yet encoded (Ipfw.edu, n.d.; Learning.hccs.edu, n.d.). This memory has a very large capacity, but lasts only for a very short period of three seconds or less (Ipfw.edu, n.d.). If the information wasn’t immediately discarded, it can be passed on to short term memory, where it can be worked on (Ipfw.edu, n.d.; Learning.hccs.edu, n.d.), or, in some cases, encoded directly to long term memory (Evl.uic.edu, n.d.). In short term memory, the capacity is much smaller than the sensory memory, but the duration is much longer. Instead of a huge capacity, the short term memory can hold onto about only 7 chunks of information, and instead of only being able to maintain these memories for mere seconds, it can last about 20-30 seconds (Evl.uic.edu, n.d.) without rehearsal. After moving into the long term memory, whether it went there directly from sensory, or passed through short term memory first, it can last a lifetime (Evl.uic.edu, n.d.). While some of this information may be passed onto long term storage intentionally, much of it requires intentional, active thought.
When we attempt to encode things intentionally to long term memory, it must first end up in short term memory where we can work with it. Encoding can be defined as, “the active process of putting information into memory—a matter of forming cognitive representations of information,” (Ipfw.edu, n.d.). Perhaps we sense something such as a night light, if we wanted to recognize what it is, and work on it in our short term memory, we must first pay attention on it. Perhaps we just want to see it’s shape or color, if that’s as far as we go, it is likely the memory will be forgotten when other stimuli take up the available space in short term memory, or if enough time passes. However, perhaps we want to be able to recall it later, in that case, we must then try to encode it into long term memory. In order to do that, we need to perform some sort of rehearsal of the memory until it sticks into long term memory. Perhaps it looks like a rock and we attempt to associate it with a rock, or think about it until it is remembered. As another example, perhaps we want to study for a test. That’s not likely to happen automatically. We have to go over the subject matter over and over again, and perhaps add retention techniques such as word and image association (Learning.hccs.edu, n.d.) in order to remember it. Much like the other two examples, trying to remember state capitals will require a specific attention and rehearsal in order to commit them to long term memory.
While it would seem like quite a bit of attention is needed to store long term memories, this isn’t always true. For example, what did you eat for lunch today? A treat from a vending machine? Did you make an effort to remember that? Probably not. Often, memories are formed and stored just by the process of a given experience (Learning.hccs.edu, n.d.). Think about these very words you are reading right now, are you thinking about the definition of the words? Probably not if English is your primary language, yet the ideas put forth are clearly understood with no conscious effort on the readers part to understand it (Learning.hccs.edu, n.d.). Sometimes we even recall memories that never touched our short term memory, memories which we paid no attention to in the least. Perhaps one day someone sees an odd shape on a wall and doesn’t take any conscious notice of it. Later, this person sees a shape that was similar to the one (s)he didn’t notice earlier, and wonders why it looks familiar (Evl.uic.edu, n.d.).
As we can see, there are many things in this world in which we remember and encode to long term memory, both intentionally and automatically. Intentional memorization of information must pass from sensory memory to short term memory where we can finally make an attempt to encode it to long term memory. Sometimes this process is automatic, such as what we had for lunch, and sometimes information can automatically skip the short term memory, and go straight to storage. There are many examples of both automatic and manual memory encoding.
Evl.uic.edu. (n.d.). [online] Available at: https://www.evl.uic.edu/sugimoto/psych1.html [Accessed 30 Mar. 2018].
Ipfw.edu. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Memory. [online] Available at: https://www.ipfw.edu/dotAsset/786eb264-0dbd-41bb-8f23-adcc753b46b9.pdf [Accessed 30 Mar. 2018].
Learning.hccs.edu. (n.d.). 07 Human Memory. [online] Available at: http://learning.hccs.edu/faculty/mark.oliver/lectures-for-intro-to-psychology/lecture-for-chapter-seven [Accessed 30 Mar. 2018].