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In this lesson, you will learn about a specific sub-type of sensory memory referred to as echoic memory. Following the lesson, you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Definition

Echoic memory is one type of sensory memory process.

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Specifically, echoic memory is sensory memory associated with auditory information received from the environment. The term echoic stems from the word echo, which is in reference to the brief echo, or the reverberation of sound that is transmitted neurologically via this type of sensory memory.

A Funny Example

Think back to the last time you heard someone tell you a funny joke.

After you finished laughing, you probably either repeated it out loud, or at minimum, replayed what you just heard over again in your head. Chances are that if you were asked to repeat the joke word for word immediately after you heard it, assuming it wasn’t too long, you would do pretty well.So, how does auditory information, or using the example above, the variety of sound qualities emanating from the joke teller’s mouth (pitch, volume, and tone) make its way to our brain when so much is going on around us in our environments? As you might have guessed, it has a lot to do with echoic memory.

Sensory Memory

To better understand how echoic memory fits into the larger context of memory, let’s take a quick look at how human memory systems are structured. According to the Atkinson-Shiffrin theory of memory, memory is comprised of three major components: sensory, short-term, and long-term. Echoic memory is a type of sensory memory.

As the name implies, sensory memory involves detecting and maintaining sensory information for potential use.

Discovery of Echoic Memory

In the early 1960s, George Sperling conducted ground-breaking research pertaining to visual sensory memory, otherwise known as iconic memory. Sperling designed and carried out studies that illuminated how the visual sensory memory system works. Naturally, this influenced others to look closely at other sensory memory processes as well.Not long after Sperling’s research on iconic memory, cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser popularized the term echoic memory, referencing the auditory equivalent of what Sperling had discovered in the realm of visual sensory memory.

Since the work of Sperling and Neisser, echoic memory has been studied extensively around the world by cognitive psychologists. The work of men like Sperling and Neisser has contributed greatly to the development of the knowledge base on sensory and echoic memory that we possess today.

Duration of Echoic Memory

One of the most important discoveries concerning sensory memory has to do with its duration. The various types of sensory memory possess unique qualities, such as how long the information is retained before it is either transferred to short-term memory or lost. Echoic memory has a capacity of 3-4 seconds.

So, for instance, as long as the effort is made to repeat that joke that you heard earlier (effortful attention and repetition allow information to be moved into short-term memory) within the 3-4 second window of time, you will likely succeed in remembering the joke. On the other hand, if those 3-4 seconds pass and you don’t make the effort to move that information into short-term memory, then it is gone.Sensory memory, which includes echoic memory, is relatively short-lived, but this offers some advantages, such as the ability to hear and retain (although briefly) multiple pieces of auditory information. Being able to sense and process multiple pieces of information almost simultaneously can have big implications for survival. For example, in dangerous situations where there may be a lot of events, and thus sounds, occurring simultaneously, echoic memory can provide our brain the opportunity to make quick decisions based on multiple pieces of auditory information.

Of course, echoic memory is also helpful in life’s not-so dangerous situations, like remembering jokes.

Lesson Summary

Echoic memory is the sub-type of sensory memory related exclusively to the receipt of auditory information from the environment. Sounds enter the ear and are translated into neurological signals. These signals are available for a brief period of time, typically 3-4 seconds. This short period of time is referred to as echoic memory.

During that small window of time, the auditory information can either be put to use by effortful transfer from sensory memory to short-term memory, or it may be ignored altogether, and thus, lost. Echoic memory provides the human brain with the adaptive ability to be able to quickly and efficiently make decisions about events taking place in the environment around us.

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