Echoic Memory And How It Works

Medically reviewed by Aaron Dutil, LMHC, LPC and Corey Pitts, MA, LCMHC, LCAS, CCS
Updated July 12, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Our brains manage and store many different types of memories, including echoic memories and visual sensory memory. Echoic memory is a term used to describe ultra-short-term auditory sensory memory for auditory stimuli like the spoken word. Often referred to as the auditory store or auditory sensory register, echoic memory is just one type of ultra-short-term memory that affects how the brain processes information gathered from the five senses. Understanding echoic memory processes and the psychological basis of this type of human memory can help you appreciate its importance and recognize whether you might need to seek medical assistance if you're having trouble with it.

Are you concerned about issues of memory loss?

What is echoic memory?

Of the five senses, the two most researched types of sensory memory are iconic (visual) and echoic (auditory). There has been substantial research on these two types of sensory memory, and much is now known about its duration and how it works to create new long-term memories.

Many people think of echoic memory as memories of specific sounds, such as songs or birds. However, the ability to recall or recognize these sounds is actually part of your long-term memory. Echoic memory only refers to the ultra-short-term memory of sounds. It is only when the brain relegates that memory to short-term and then long-term memory that you can recall or recognize them later.

How echoic memory works

When you hear a sound, your ears transmit that actual sound to the brain via the auditory nerve, and it is stored by echoic memory for an average of two to four seconds. During that brief time, your mind creates and keeps an exact copy of the sound that you heard, such that if you were in a quiet room, you could still “hear” the sound after it has stopped. This happens whether you are paying attention to the spoken language around you or not.

A common example is when you are absorbed in a book and someone asks you a question, your first response might be, “What did you say?” But almost as soon as you ask or even before you finish saying it, you realize that you do know what they said. This is echoic memory at work, allowing you to process the sound of the question without paying attention to it.

Within the short time that echoic memory retains the memory, the brain either discards or keeps it. If the sound you heard has context that makes it seem important, the brain will move that information to your short-term memory stores, where it will remain for around 20 minutes. From this point, the information will either be discarded or encoded into long-term memory.

Parts of the brain for echoic memories

Auditory stimuli are received by the fine hairs within your ear and transmitted to the primary auditory cortex (PAC) in the temporal lobe of the brain as electrical signals. There, echoic memory stores remain for an average of four seconds before being discarded or moved to the short-term memory banks of the hippocampus.

Some sounds, like in the case of musical echoic memory training, are remembered or encoded into the short-term or long-term memory as a perfect replica. This is what allows you to recognize a note, a song on the radio, a particular person's voice, or other sounds you may encounter on a regular basis. However, sometimes the visual information received from someone speaking is retained in long-term memory without the actual sounds being associated with it. Real life examples include attending a seminar, where you may remember what you learned later without hearing the speech again.

Duration of echoic memories

Echoic memory, with its echoic memory capacity, is an ultra-short-term sensory memory that lasts for a very brief time but still longer than iconic memory. It stores many echoic memories and has been found to last between two and four seconds, depending on the type of study. Results have varied depending on how the echoic memory was tested.

One study tested echoic memory by playing a sound bite of white noise to subjects. (Because white noise is steady and difficult to describe or mimic, it is an ideal sound to use for such a study.) Researchers found that when the white noise clip was longer and repeated at intervals, the subjects could not identify when the white noise sound clip was ending or starting. However, when they decreased the clip to two seconds and repeated it at intervals, the subjects were able to clearly distinguish when the clip stopped and started over again.

Another study tested several subjects on the duration of echoic memory. Researchers found one subject that was able to test with perfect accuracy up to 9 seconds after the auditory stimuli in the right ear ended. This is considered exceptional and not the rule of thumb. However, it does seem possible for some people to have a better echoic memory than others.

Mismatch negativity

Mismatch negativity is a phenomenon where two overlapping pieces of different information are present within the same time frame, and the brain recognizes that there are two separate pieces of information or a change in information. While this is an automatic process, it does rely on the echoic memory to hold two distinct pieces of information at the same time.

Studies have found that because echoic memory has a longer duration than iconic memory and lasts for a few seconds, it is feasible for more than one piece of information to be stored in echoic memory at the same time. If one is listening to continuous changes in sound, such as music or someone speaking, they may store two or more sounds in their echoic memory at a time, each leaving echoic memory within a specified time frame from when it was first heard.

Mismatch negativity was important to early humans, and it is still important to the animal kingdom because the ability to detect changes in the environment could be essential for survival. Mismatch negativity still holds some importance for humans today as well. For example, you may be able to detect changes in a person’s voice through mismatch negativity that indicates a change in demeanor.

Impairment of echoic memories

Echoic memory can be impaired in some children or adults, and there are different medical conditions or events that can cause a loss of echoic memory. In children with echoic memory deficits, speech impairments, poor language development, and communication discrepancies may surface.

Some medical conditions can also lead to a loss of echoic memory. For instance, some types of strokes lead to sensory deficits, including a loss of echoic memory. However, with therapy and repeated exposure to stimuli such as audiobooks, echoic memory can return in some stroke patients. Damage to the temporal lobe may affect echoic memory as well. 

Sensory memory, including echoic memory, is typically not affected by other forms of memory disorders such as Alzheimer's or dementia. However, with these memory disorders, it may become impossible to retain new memories through echoic memory.

Getting help for memory loss

If you notice a decline in your ability to recognize sounds, there may be a problem with your overall memory, including iconic and echoic memory. Echoic memory is typically not affected by memory loss conditions, but it can play a role in the inability to identify previously familiar sounds— for example, the sound of a loved one’s voice.

It is important to get help with memory loss as soon as you notice a problem. While some memory loss is normal with the aging process, extreme losses can be a sign of a more serious problem. The sooner you get help for your memory loss, the more options there may be available to you for treatment.

You may also notice that you are forgetting sounds that you once were able to recall freely. For instance, you may suddenly forget your favorite song or be unable to recognize notes when you used to be a capable musician. There are many different types of sounds stored in your long-term memory trace that you may find yourself forgetting or being unable to recognize.

A powerful first step in getting help for your memory loss is seeking out a psychologist specializing in experimental psychology. A psychologist can evaluate your case and administer a battery of memory tests to determine the extent of your memory loss, the types of memory that are affected, such as haptic memory and visual sensory memory, and perhaps the cause. Once the tests are complete, the psychologist will likely recommend further steps for diagnosis. Once you are diagnosed, you may discuss potential treatment options.

Are you concerned about issues of memory loss?

Online therapy with betterhelp

Online counseling services, such as BetterHelp, can be effective at treating a variety of issues, including assessing and improving issues of memory. Online therapy may be particularly helpful for those with memory challenges since sessions can be held anytime, anywhere – you just need an internet connection to get started. For those with memory impairments, the ease of availability offered with online therapy may also be safer than traveling to and from sessions. 

The effectiveness of online therapy

Therapy has proven to be a useful tool in utilizing cognitive support strategies to improve memory in people with Alzheimer’s, certain forms of dementia, reduced frontal lobe activity, and those with depression. One study found “an improvement in memory, language, and visuo-constructional abilities” at the end of a telehealth intervention. This supports the idea of online therapy being useful for issues related to memory and cognition. 

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Takeaway

The human brain is designed to preserve information and memories obtained through sensory data. The two most studied sensory memory systems are the echoic memory stores (auditory) and iconic memory stores (visual). Both are designed to store information for milliseconds and if needed longer are transferred to working memory.  

Echoic memory is necessary for storing audio information within the brain. 

Auditory sensory memory is sometimes referred to as the auditory sensory register. Sounds are processed in the primary auditory cortex, located in the temporal lobe. Mismatch negativity allows humans to process two overlapping pieces of information and allows us to perceive a change in demeanor based on a person’s voice. When echoic memory is impaired, these perceptions may be hindered.

For those facing memory-related issues, it’s important to reach out for support. Working alongside a doctor, you can discover whether a physical or mental health problem may be affecting your cognition. It can also be beneficial to speak with a licensed online therapist to cope with any difficult emotions that may arise during the process.

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