What Are The Three Stages Of Memory?

Updated January 02, 2019

Reviewer Laura Angers

Memories are funny things, we often think of them as finite and unchanging until we get old then they magically "fail." The truth is that your memory can fail at any time and the fact is we forget more things than we remember. Even if you think you have a good memory, it isn't something that you're necessarily born with. Memory formation plays a huge part in whether or even if we're able to recall information. The three stages of memory are encoding, storage, and retrieval and your brain can fail you during any of those. These are also referred to as the three basic processes of memory.

Encoding

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This is a fancy word used for when your brain is making memories. During the encoding process is the most frequent time for when memories are lost or improperly formed leaving them incomplete. Our brain translates what we're experiencing into information and then this information is stored so that it can be recalled later. The three types of information that we perceive are visual, acoustic, and semantic and without all three the memory is incomplete. These three different forms are one of the reasons that we can often recall things better based on unrelated cues. For example, being told to use a specific smell when revising information so that smell can be related to the information when its needed for a future recall. Encoding is the process used to create the memory in the first place.

Encoding different types of memory is used in both short-term and long-term memory creation, but it is more important in short-term memory because the encoding is only superficial which is why the information is so easily forgotten. The more in-depth memory creation for long-term recall means that the major encoding creates a stronger pathway due to the importance of the information.

Storage

It was once thought that memory storage was limited to only one portion of the brain, research has since shown that memories are stored in several different regions and that even when these do not necessarily relate to whether the memory is long-term or short-term. The type of memory does affect how it is stored, however, specifically between long-term and short-term memory. In 1956 studies showed that adults could store 5-9 items in their short-term memory. This was known as Miller's Law and has remained the standard even with subsequent research, although hacking techniques like chunking have been known to give some leeway. Long-term memory in comparison has unlimited capacity.

Memory is nothing more than an electrical impulse and studies in the 50s and 60s showed that recall activated the entire cortex, especially for long-term memories. The exception to this is a sensory memory as our senses reside in specific areas of the brain. For example, the amygdala stores emotions. One of the major discoveries at this time was that there can be several "copies" of memories stored all over the brain which may explain why brain damage that is localized does not always wipe out memories from the same time-frame or experience. Memory processing for storage continuously forms and reforms pathways in our minds.

The fact that long-term memory is unlimited begs the question - why can't we always remember things. This goes back to encoding where memory may have been incomplete when stored and to recall where we may suddenly remember the information at a later time or under hypnosis. The exact process for editing and sorting memories remains unknown.

The hippocampus region of the brain is crucial to memory creation and storage. A person with damage to their hippocampus region often experiences amnesia and may struggle to form new memories from that point in their lives onward. It acts as a funnel or gateway where memories are sorted, and research has shown that oxygen levels are particularly important in hippocampus function. A person who experiences hypoxia may have trouble with memory and patients who have Alzheimer's have been shown to have extensive damage specific to the hippocampus region.

Retrieval

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One of the most common reasons our memory fails us is not that the memory has been lost but that we are unable to recall it. Trying to remember things is especially noticeable when dealing with short-term vs. long-term memory. Short-term memories tend to be sequential which is why they are quickest to be retrieved when they are fresh and is usually refreshed frequently which is why things are quickly forgotten even if we don't mean to. Long-term memory is strongly connected to the association which is why having a second sense engaged while you're "creating" the memory often causes it to be recalled when that sense is triggered again. If you've ever smelled something and it reminded you of another time or heard a piece of music, and it reminded you then your long-term memory has been triggered by association.

Retrieval is also connected to how your brain stores memory. While the exact organization is still unclear the ability to recall items can relate to how you stored them and when. If you are trying to retrieve items from short-term memory, for example, your recall is only 5-9 items long and waiting too long to do so will likely cause it to "drop off" that list even if you don't intend that to happen.

Failure to recall is often the first sign that something may not be right with our memory. It is normal to forget things but if you forget more often or your forgetfulness is becoming more than a habit you may need to seek help.

When to Seek Help

Most of us brush off forgetfulness as stress or normal aging but memory problems can affect any age, and there is no "normal" aging process which creates extreme forgetfulness except those related to degenerative diseases. If you're not finding any other symptoms, your forgetfulness may indeed be something minor, but it's important to check. First, seek out the advice of your GP and discuss what's been going on, note any other symptoms you may have experienced. They may refer you to a therapist such as one from BetterHelp.

If you are referred to a therapist it's likely they will use one of these techniques:

RMT

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RMT or repressed/recovered-memory therapy is a type of psychotherapy that can be used to recall memories that have been "lost." While it is a recognized method, it is treated similarly to unproven methods like hypnosis because it is rarely used outside of PTSD and dissociative disorders. It is considered an ethical gray area because it deals with memories that can sometimes be proven false, even if the brain believes they are true (False Memory Syndrome). The argument is that RMT has been previously linked to remembering "memories" that never actually happened which is why the psychological community shuns it. RMT deals primarily with the recall state of memory and is "effective" on long-term memories, especially those related to psychological trauma.

It is considered a fairly dubious practice and a pseudoscience by most therapists.

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy or CBT is a type of counseling used to interrupt negative behavior patterns and create new ones. This is best used in situations where memory loss is a secondary symptom like depression or anxiety disorders. Therapists will use biases in thinking and guidance to reformulate how you react to things into a more practical and rational way. By being able to control these negative behaviors memory may improve on its own. It is especially important to seek professional guidance in cases where you think your memory loss may be related to anxiety or depressive disorders as there may also be a need for medications to help.

Memory Tasks

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Memory tasks are the simplest form of memory therapy and are mostly designed like games that test short-term memory repeatedly until the maximum recall has been reached. They will also help with processing speed to make recall faster. These games make your brain reuse the neural pathways that it has for recall over and over again strengthening the connection of the neurons and making them more familiar. This, in turn, makes the pathway easier to access and faster to connect to. These apps rely on compensatory strategy training which uses techniques and situations that we encounter regularly and has familiarity with so that time isn't lost trying to learn new information. These tasks are also similar to those in which a cognitive therapist will assign.

The three stages of memory are all important in creating and recalling any memory. How our brains create and store memories has a lot to do with whether we'll even be able to recall them later. The capacity our brains have for memories is limitless, yet we see memory as such a finite thing that when there is a problem we are often slow to recognize it. Treating memory issues as soon as possible can help prevent them from getting worse but it can also help prevent them from becoming permanent. Left untreated memory problems can affect many different aspects of your life and should be treated as soon as possible.


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