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The sensory register is vital to your ability to remember and retain information you consider important.

Learn what the sensory register is, how it works and test your knowledge with quiz questions.

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What Is Sensory Register?

Sensory register, also called sensory memory, refers to the first and most immediate form of memory you have. The sensory register is your ultra-short-term memory that takes in sensory information through your five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) and holds it for no more than a few seconds. Our senses are engaged when we are exposed to a stimulus, or something that causes a sensory response, such as a strong odor.

It is the sensory register that enables you to remember sensory stimuli after your exposure to the stimuli has ended.To make this clearer, imagine taking a 5-minute walk through a downtown area. During that short stroll, you might be exposed to buildings of varying sizes, cars of many shapes and colors, foliage growing or people talking to each other on their phones. These are just a quick sample of all the potential sensory stimuli you might encounter during your walk.

But you will tend to ignore most of it because these things don’t strike you as important and as a result, you will not remember specific details about them.You can’t pay attention to all of the stimuli you are exposed to. The sensory information that you do pay attention to becomes part of your sensory register. For example, that beautiful flower arrangement outside the quaint café or the loud, irritating voice of the mobile phone user walking behind you or the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee coming from the corner store. These and other sensory experiences that you attend to enter your sensory register and allow you to remember them after you leave the scene.

Types of Sensory Memory

There are two main parts of the sensory register: visual memory, also called iconic memory, and auditory memory, also called echoic memory. These senses take in most of the stimuli you are exposed to.

Visual memory holds images we see for less than a second before it fades. Auditory memory holds sound for a little longer, a few seconds. You also have sensory registers for touch (tactile memory), smell (olfactory memory) and taste (gustatory memory).

Moving Beyond Sensory Memory

If you are exposed to something you consider important, you will pay attention to it and that information enters into your sensory register.

But to retain it, you have to transfer the information from your sensory memory to your short-term memory, which can hold information for only a few minutes. To make this transfer, you have to practice or rehearse it.For example, you are driving through town and along the side of the road is a sign that says, ‘Need a job? Call: 882-4459’. You are out of work and would like to call this number, but you’re driving in heavy traffic that won’t allow you to stop. So, you start repeating the number out loud to yourself until you can pull over and write it down. That’s an example of moving the information from your sensory memory to your short-term memory.

If you continued to rehearse the information, whether it was a phone number, a set of facts or a speech you wrote, you could permanently retain the information by transferring it to your long-term memory, which can hold information for years. But it’s important to remember that the entire memory process all starts with your sensory register.

Lesson Summary

Your sensory register, also called sensory memory, is a very short-term type of memory that is engaged when you encounter sensory stimuli that you consider important. The sensory register enables you to remember the image, sound, smell, taste or touch after you are no longer exposed to it.

Sensory stimuli that you deem unimportant is ignored or immediately forgotten. There are two main parts of the sensory register: visual memory, also called iconic memory, and auditory memory, also called echoic memory.At most, your sensory register holds the memory for only a few seconds unless the information is rehearsed in an effort to transfer it to short-term or long-term memory. Short-term memory can hold information for only a few minutes, while long-term memory can hold information for years.

Learning Outcomes

After you’ve completed this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Describe how the sensory register works and its purpose
  • Explain iconic and echoic memory
  • Summarize the relationship between the sensory register, short-term and long-term memory

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