An Overview Of Encoding Memory & Is It Dangerous

By Nadia Khan

Updated December 19, 2018

Reviewer Aaron Horn


The human memory is a fascination and life-impacting organism. Without the memory, it would be impossible for people to function and carry out their day-to-day activities. However, memories go through the various process, especially as they are stored and processed in the brain. The encoding of memory occurs when "the perceived item of use or interest is converted into a construct that can be stored within the brain and recalled later from short-term or long-term memory." Encoding is one of the most basic memory-related abilities. Various recollections are encoded into the mind every day, regardless of whether people are consciously or subconsciously aware.

Memory Encoding Explained

The website, Human Memory, affirms that the encoding of memory begins via sensory perception. In layman's terms, when a specific memory begins to receive attention, the human brain creates a large amount of neurons, which causes the memory to be encoded. Moreover, emotion plays a considerable role in the encoding process. This is why most people tend to form stronger memories of events and circumstances which carry significant meaning to them, for better or for worse. The emotional factor in memory encoding is also why it is more difficult for human beings to recall matters which are of little to no importance in their minds. In some ways, this ties back to sensory perception.

In the explanation of memory encoding, noting the various parts of the brain and the subsequent roles they play in the process is paramount. First and foremost comes the hippocampus; this element of the brain ultimately examines memories during the encoding process and then decides whether or not they should be sorted into short-term or long-term memories. The hippocampus is very essential and plays a significant role in the functionality of the human memory; where this part of the brain to be harmed, forming new memories would become an impossibility. Clinically, the inability to form new memories is known as anterograde amnesia.

Types Of Memory Encoding


To subdivide the seemingly complex process of memory encoding, it is broken down into four different categories. Lumen Learning lists the types of memory encoding as visual, acoustic, elaborative, and semantic. Each of the categories above plays a critical role in the encoding of memory. Although most people don't realize it, they are visual, acoustically, elaboratively, and semantically encoding memories every day.

When the brain visually encodes memories, it processes various images and information which pertains to visual senses. The amygdala plays an integral role in visual encoding; first, these memories are placed in the iconic memory (a very brief type of sensory memory which rapidly fades) and then stored in the long-term memory. Recalling phone numbers on a contact list, colors associated with various brands, or where certain rooms are located in your home are all examples of successful, visually encoded memories.

As the name suggests, acoustic encoded memories are recollections which are connected to hearing and auditory senses. Repetition (also referred to as phonological loop) is paramount for these type of memories to encode within the human brain successfully. The necessity of the phonological loop is why most people tend to remember the lyrics to their favorite songs. Listening to anything over and over again, whether it's a speech, song, or phrase, increases the likelihood of the brain encoding the sound like a long-term memory.

Next comes elaborative encoding; this type of memory encoding connects already processed memories to newer information and then determines commonalities between the two. Believe it or not, successful elaborative encoding strengthens the retention of long-term remembrances. This version of encoding is largely why people tend to recall situations or events which maintain links to strong emotions, regardless of whether or not said emotions are positive or negative.

Semantic encoding largely relies upon the organization of segments of information and strategies which are used to enhance recollection abilities. As previously noted, repetition or ongoing exposure is one of the best effective techniques which enhances people's abilities to remember various bits of information. Some great examples of semantically encoded memories include, recalling a house based on its color, remembering various stores by their chosen colors, and associating certain colors with one's favorite foods.

Memories which are encoded by visual, acoustic, elaborative, and semantic means each play a role in the quality of the human memory. In fact, encoding is the very first step of memory retention. Without the ability to encode memories, nobody would be able to recall various life events, feelings, or individual. Each version of memory encoding plays a role in processing and transferring various recollections to the part of the brain which stores long-term remembrances.

Is Memory Encoding Dangerous?


In and of itself, memory encoding is not dangerous. Without the ability to encode memories, humans' ability to function would be virtually impossible. However, when the process of encoding memories is damaged or otherwise compromised, this can be very dangerous, depending upon the severity of harm. Additional intel from Lumen Learning explains why; this particular source compares memory encoding to saving documents to a computer file. On the surface, this sounds fairly simple, but, in actuality, it's not. Just as document files should be complete and saved in the right folder, the same principle applies when memories are being encoded.

Previous studies and discoveries from specialists have already determined that not all memories are accurate. As a matter of fact, human memories are highly vulnerable to distortion. The presentation of new information, the power of suggestion, and many other factors can impact memories which have already been encoded. This vulnerability increases considerably with the passing of time. Granted, this doesn't mean that every single long-term memory is altered or inaccurate, but it simply means that long-term memories CAN be changed under the proper circumstances.

While the process of encoding memories is not inherently dangerous, the manipulation of this process can be particularly damaging. Intentionally implanting false memories is a form of encoding manipulation and can have dire effects. The human brain automatically processes information which it receives regardless of whether or not said information is true or false. If the coercion is intense enough, false recollections can override previously encoded and stored information. This type of manipulation is dangerous; it can cause victims to regard friends as enemies, forget critical memories, and otherwise engage in questionable conduct which is out of character for them.

A Final Word

Many people take memory encoding for granted. While this process is innate and automatic, the quality of the human mind also plays a role. Healthier minds are much likelier to encode various information at a faster and superior rate. Moreover, the quality and precision of encoded memories are usually better. However, various factors such as quality of life, nutrition, etc. can affect the caliber of encoded memories. Therefore, people are strongly advised to take good care of themselves, exercise, eat well, and surround themselves with positive people, environments, and opportunities.

The preceding advice is particularly applicable for older people. Unfortunately, the quality of the body and mind tends to decline with age. Therefore, the importance of healthy and nutritious lifestyle habits and environments becomes even more imperative for elders. Harvard Health lists reading, painting, drawing, exercise, word puzzles, strong social networks, and moderate to low consumption of alcohol as excellent ways for an older individual to maintain robust mental health and preserve the "youth" of their brains.


Connecting with other people (hence previously mentioned strong social networks) plays a considerable role in the quality of one's mental health. This is especially critical during times where life is stressful, uncertain, or otherwise difficult. The truth of the matter is that good times and bad times are inevitable regardless of how healthy someone is.

In many cases, sitting down with a counselor or therapist can be particularly helpful and beneficial. Individuals who fall into the categories above have made a living out of guiding people and aiding them in their quests to achieve happiness and live their best lives. Each person had their unique trials and tribulations; the good news is that we do not have to go through these things alone. There is always someone out there who wants to be of assistance.

Here at BetterHelp, providing aid to those in need, thus improving their quality of life is our top priority. We pride ourselves on being of help to every person who reaches out to us.

You can contact BetterHelp at any time by clicking here.

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