What Is Sensory Memory And Why Is It Important?
When most people think of sensory memory, they may think about memories they have of certain smells, tastes, or sights, especially individuals with sensory processing disorder who may have a heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli. However, scientifically, this is not what quantifies sensory memory, also known as working memory. Sensory memory in psychology is the memory process that stores information taken in by the senses. These sensory impressions are stored very briefly—particularly in relation to other types of memory—as the human memory relies on sensory information to create memories and increase understanding but does not have to retain impressions of sensory input long-term in order to maintain memory stores or sort through information.
Everyone has a sensory memory. However, there are cases where things can go wrong with it, such as in disorders like schizophrenia and Alzheimer's. While these are extremely unfortunate circumstances, if they are tested early enough, there may be ways to help prevent or slow down the deterioration of sensory memory. The ability to slow down the loss of sensory memory—or the loss of its functions—depends on the condition in question, and the severity of its symptoms. Read on to learn more about sensory memory and the essential role it plays in the development and retention of our memories.
Sensory Memory Explained
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sensory memory as the brief storage of information derived from the senses that exists in an unprocessed form to be recoded into another memory for comprehension. It can also be called ultra-short-term memory, lasting only a few seconds (or even less than a few seconds). When you encounter something with one of the five senses (i.e., taste, touch, smell, sight, or hearing), your brain creates a flash of sensory memory. For a very brief time, you can remember what it is that you experienced with your senses. Your brain then decides whether to store this information for future use in short-term memory or to discard it, such as in eidetic memory.
Common Characteristics Of Sensory Memory
As there are five senses, there are five types of sensory memory. However, all forms of sensory memory have some common characteristics. These characteristics remain true regardless of which sense is being used, or whichever part of the brain is processing the memory. Sensory memory does not require your attention. It is completely automatic. Your brain takes in the information provided by the senses and processes it without you having to think about it or do anything consciously.
The next thing to consider is that sensory memory is only stored in the part of the brain associated with the sense that provided the information. For example, sensory memory created from auditory stimuli will only be processed or stored by the part of the brain that relates to hearing.
Furthermore, sensory memory is exceptionally detailed. Even though it only lasts a short time, it is extremely sharp in your mind during that brief period. For example, if you look at an object and quickly close your eyes, the sensory memory of the object will likely be so clear, that you will feel as though you still have your eyes open.
The final consideration regarding the characteristics of sensory memory is that it is extremely brief. It is continuously being replaced by new sensory memories as stimuli taken in by the senses continues or increases. Once sensory memory is gone, there is no way to recover it. Unless the brain relegates the information to short-term memory, all sensory memories are lost very quickly.
Types Of Sensory Memory
Just as there are five senses, there are five types of sensory memory. Each is distinct and works independently of the others. Although there are five types of sensory memory, we will consider the three that have been meticulously studied by researchers:
Iconic memory refers to memories created through vision or sight. When you see an object, close your eyes, and still see it in your mind's eye for a very brief period, your brain is using iconic memory. Sights are taken in through the photoreceptor cells in the eyes, then transmitted to the occipital lobe of the brain, where the sensory memory is briefly stored and evaluated.
Echoic memory is also known as auditory memory. It is the sensory memory for auditory input and stimuli. When you are listening to someone speak in the background and they stop talking, but you still note the tone or pitch of their voice, this is auditory memory at work. Auditory stimuli are picked up by the tiny hair-like sensory cells in the ears known as cilia or cochlear hair cells. This information is then transmitted to the temporal lobe of the brain, where the auditory memory is stored—often for less than a second.
Haptic memory is related to touch. This type of sensory memory is about everything that we feel throughout our bodies. Anytime you make contact with something, the memory of that touch remains for a split second. This is haptic memory at work. The body is covered in sensory receptors that relay information to the spinal cord, which then transmits incoming information to the post central gyrus of the parietal lobe of the brain.
The Role Of Sensory Memory
Sensory memory, although extremely brief, plays a vital role in your overall memory processes. Without sensory memory, new short-term and long-term memories cannot be formed. As you take in sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings, your brain makes a snap decision as to whether to relegate that information to the short-term memory or discard it. Once it is let go, it is lost forever. Once an individual’s sensory memory sends messages to their short-term memory system, repetition, or relative importance of the information may or may not relegate it to long-term memory (also known as secondary memory). Once in long-term memory, the information can be recalled at any time, or until such time as the long-term memory fails.
Sensory memory also has an important role in survival instincts. Even though it only lasts for a short time, this flash of memory can alert you to threats if the proper processes are utilized. Because the senses are constantly at work, new sensory memories are being formed before the old ones have dissipated. This is why, if something moves almost imperceptibly, you will notice it right away. Your iconic memory is telling you that the object or threat that you are looking at has moved.
Sensory Memory Examples
There are many examples of sensory memory, as the senses are constantly at work, feeding our brains information. When you are typing on your keyboard and feel that tingle in your finger pad as your finger leaves the key, this is sensory memory. You are remembering the feel of the key even though you are no longer touching it. It only lasts for a moment, but it is there, nonetheless.
The most common example of iconic memory is when you look at an object and close your eyes and still see the object (albeit very briefly). For example, if you look at a bright light bulb and close your eyes, you will still see it for a split second before it goes away. If you were asking someone about a book and they flashed you the cover for a moment, your mind would remember that cover for a very short period of time before relaying it for future retrieval to the short-term memory.
The example of echoic memory that is easiest to consider is the pitch of a voice. If someone suddenly screeches in a high pitch, then goes silent, your mind remembers that pitch for momentarily before discarding it. This is why you may cringe for a split second after the screech has already ended. When you hear someone say something important, the auditory memory holds on to it for a split second before relaying it to your short-term memory for storage.
A good example of haptic memory is pushing a button or running your finger over a zipper. For a split second, after your finger leaves the object, your mind will remember the feeling the stimuli elicited. If you are really paying attention, you may notice it as a slight tingle in the pad of your finger. When you touch something hot—such as a stove—as a young child, haptic memory recalls the pain almost instantaneously before moving that information to short-term memory, which then relays it to long-term memory, so that you remember not to touch the stove again.
Mismatch Negativity (MMN)
Mismatch negativity, or MMN, is the earliest brain response that can be measured physiologically related to auditory or visual stimuli. It is a very important survival response that enables to nervous system to detect unusual and possibly dangerous events by noticing minute differences in stimuli already perceived in the past. You do not have to be paying attention to what you are hearing or seeing in order for MMN to function. Essentially, your senses are creating new sensory memories constantly, so even though the sensory memory only lasts for a moment, it allows for comparison. Mismatch negativity is the measure of the brain that recognizes that something has changed. George Sperling pioneered the study of sensory memory and played a key role in developing a greater understanding of sensory memory, and how it relates to MMN.
Sensory Memory Disorders
Mismatch negativity plays a large role in diagnosing certain disorders. When MMN is low or not present, it can mean that there are problems with an individual’s sensory memory. There are several mental health or memory disorders that can affect sensory memory; however, the following two medical conditions are the most common: schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Schizophrenia And Auditory Sensory Memory
In an extensive study done by a group of psychiatrists, it was discovered that a decrease in the function of sensory memory is associated with schizophrenia. In the study, several groups of people were studied in their responses to auditory stimuli, particularly measuring mismatch negativity. There were a group of patients with schizophrenia, a group of patients with bipolar affective disorder, and a group of healthy adults.
The study found that, while both bipolar affective disorder and schizophrenic patients had significant reductions in MMN, the patients with schizophrenia were significantly lowered. This could provide insight as to why these patients have increased negative symptoms; in fact, the study noted that negative symptoms of the disorder were exacerbated by the low MMN, whereas positive ones did not seem to be affected.
Alzheimer's And Auditory Sensory Memory
Another study done by neuroscience researchers studied the effects of auditory stimuli in Alzheimer's patients. They found that mismatch negativity was severely decreased as the patients' condition deteriorated. This could be one reason why Alzheimer's patients have trouble forming new memories: new memories cannot be created if sensory memory is not functioning properly.
If you or a loved one are having difficulty making new memories, you may have a medical disorder that is affecting your sensory memory. There are several tests available that assess sensory memory and mismatch negativity. If you suspect that you are having memory problems, seek out professional help to get tested. If the test results return showing you are having low MMN and sensory memory issues, further tests can determine the cause and follow up with appropriate treatment. While sensory memory issues can be a sign of a serious problem that requires medical attention, people can still benefit from the assistance of a counselor or therapist who can help keep people and their senses engaged.
Studies have shown that online cognitive therapy can help those who have experienced memory impairment. In one report, researchers found that online cognitive treatments were effective in bolstering memory through the utilization of a messaging service. Another study found that online cognitive training (CT) can be beneficial when improving the short-term memory of those experiencing cognitive impairment. These findings are in line with an increasingly large amount of research pointing to online therapy as a valuable component of treatment for a wide range of cognitive impairments, such as memory loss arising out of schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s Disease, or other mental health disorders.
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Sensory memory is a fleeting form of remembrance that you most likely are unable to recall, like your longer-lasting memories. This article has hopefully enlightened your understanding of sensory memory and helped you realize why it is essential. Even if you only see, hear, and touch something for a brief moment, take a moment to be thankful for sensory memory. Without a well-functioning sensory memory, you may not be able to form the memories you hold dear, converse with friends, or even properly memorize important information. With the right tools, you can sharpen your sensory memory and make your present experiences more fulfilling and memorable. If you need help with finding tools to discover how, speak with a therapist for guidance.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):
What is sensory memory in psychology?
Sensory memory in psychology is the memory process that stores information taken in by the senses. These sensory impressions are stored very briefly—particularly in relation to other types of memory—as the human memory relies on sensory information to create memories and increase understanding but does not have to retain impressions of sensory input long-term in order to maintain memory stores or sort through information.
Sensory memory is an important part of psychology, in addition to neurology, because sensory memory can play a role in a host of mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and other memory disorders, such as amnesia. Sensory memory that does not integrate properly, but instead is known to retain impressions long past the standard period necessitated by memory processes, can lead to a heightened sense of recall, which can cause symptoms such as flashbacks.
What is a good example of sensory memory?
One of the greatest examples of sensory memory—and iconic sensory memory in particular—is the sensation of “seeing” a trail of light when a sparkler or other light source is moved very quickly. Even though the light has already gone past a certain point, the human memory retains the sensory information delivered by the sparkler for a brief period, allowing your mind to “see” a trail of light.
What are the different types of sensory memory?
There are different types of sensory memory processes that are widely studied, though it stands to reason that each different sense has its own information stored in sensory memory banks. The three types of sensory widely studied include iconic memory (impressions of sensory information created by sight), echoic memory (impressions of sensory information created by sound), and haptic memory (impressions of sensory information created by touch). The memory banks created through sight, hearing, and touch are very brief, and only hold onto those sensory impressions for a brief time—just long enough to comprehend or store memories. Once sensory impressions are seen, they move toward storing information by first transferring to the working memory (which allows information to be processed and analyzed), before being distributed to long-term memory storage, removed from memory altogether, or briefly kept in short-term memory banks.
Where is sensory memory stored?
Sensory memory is a type of short-term memory and does not move into long-term information on its own; instead, sensory memory is kept in short-term memory storage, where it is used to evaluate, analyze, and synthesize information, and this completed information is what is then sent to long-term memory storage. Human memory relies on memory processes that first take in information, then analyze information after the original event or stimulus has taken place, and conclude by either storing, removing, or further analyzing whatever information has been taken in. This process allows a continual stream of information to be taken in (via short-term memory, where sensory memory is stored), without overloading the brain’s processes and functions.
What is sensory memory with example?
Sensory memory is a type of short-term memory that retains sensory information for mere seconds after sensory stimuli has occurred, to understand a situation, idea, or occurrence more fully and effectively. Sensory memory can include visual memories—the most common example being the “trail” a flashlight leaves when it is moved quickly—auditory memories—the most common being when you have words “bounce” around in your mind for a few beats, before you are actually able to comprehend what was said—and haptic memory, or the memory of touch—the most common example being the ability to remember a texture almost as though you are touching an object, when you are not touching the object at all. Each of these types of sensory memory processes allows the brain to retain and evaluate information after the original source of stimuli has passed by or gone away.
What are three types of memory?
The three types of well-studied sensory memory are haptic memory (touch), echoic memory (sound), and iconic memory (sight). These memory types all fall under the umbrella of sensory memory, or a type of short-term memory that briefly stores sensory information (typically no longer than a few seconds) to more fully comprehend or more effectively store a memory or event. Human memory begins using sensory memory processes in infancy and continues to use these 3 types of memory processes into adulthood and beyond.
What is sensory memory process?
The sensory memory process describes a facet of working memory, which requires different sources of memory input to create a robust, complete picture of given information. Sensory memory includes all the senses, but only 3 aspects of sensory memory have been studied with any real depth or regularity: echoic memory (sound), haptic memory (touch), and iconic memory (sight). Each of these senses creates “snapshots,” of sorts, of a sense-based experience, in order to analyze and understand an event, piece of information, or incoming stimuli more thoroughly.
What are the different functions of sensory memory?
Although there are several functions of sensory memory, individuals working in the fields of psychology have homed in on three sources of sensory input and their corresponding memory centers: sight, sound, and touch. Sight (iconic memory), sound (echoic memory), and touch (haptic memory) are all viewed as three pivotal functions in creating a fully fleshed, well-understood tidbit of information, and each of these senses plays a role in taking in information, processing information, and coming to conclusions about that information. Echoic memory, for instance, might hold onto a word or phrase while you are listening half-heartedly, and give you an opportunity to grasp what was being said. Iconic memory allows you to recall information on a billboard that you’d passed a few seconds earlier, without having to turn around and search for the billboard. Haptic memory allows you to recall that the texture of a sweater you’ve just touched is scratchy and warm, and therefore a poor choice for a 70-degree day.
How is sensory memory helpful?
Sensory memory is an integral process of developing both short-term and long-term memories, as sensory memory helps process incoming stimuli and aids in the analysis and eventual storage of information. The types of memory that rely upon sensory memory are vast, and include episodic, semantic, working, and prospective memory, all of which rely on a functional short-term memory process and long-term memory process. Episodic memory is a type of memory process that relays personal details without sensory memory, it would be difficult to create a robust episodic memory bank. After all, what personal revelation is complete without a rich retelling, replete with sensory details, such as the plushness of a beloved cat’s fur, or the beautiful trill of a lost loved one’s voice?
Semantic memory, too, relies upon sensory memory. Semantic memory is a type of memory process that stores general information. Rather than using the sensory remembrance of the late Fluffy’s fur, semantic memory might rely on the mind to relay a specific smell to identify a type of cooking, or upon the sight of sports players’ lineup in order to correctly identify the rules for the sport in question.
Working and prospective memory also relies on sensory memory because working memory is the “why” or “so what?” of the memory process and prospective memory is the day-to-day memory bank. Without the visual, auditory, and touch input of sensory memory, the brain would have a difficult time making sense of sights, sounds, and textures and maintaining consistency in daily functioning.
Sensory memory can also have a hand in whether someone experiences a particular syndrome; memory and mental health are very closely linked, and there is some evidence to suggest a link between memory breakdown and schizophrenia and other mental illnesses or disorders. While it may not initially seem terribly important, sensory memory is essential to proper and timely function of all types of memory.
How is sensory memory stored?
Sensory memory is a part of the working memory system and is stored briefly within short-term memory. Although sensory memory can be integrated into long-term memory, it is unusual for sensory impressions to persist past a few seconds in as rich a remembrance as they create immediately after the input has been received. For instance, your brain will hold onto the rich vibrato of a live performance for a few seconds, but your long-term memory will only remember the impression you received from the auditory input; namely, that the performer sang beautifully. When you perceive a masterful work of art, your brain will hold onto the memory of its shape, colors, and dimensions without the same vibrancy as actually standing before a piece of art. When you hold your hand to a cactus, your brain will retain the knowledge that the cactus was, in fact, prickly to the touch, but will not excite a physical sensation of being pricked. In this way, sensory memory is only stored for a short period, to more fully create and store memories. There are some rare exceptions to this, as in the case of having a photographic memory, or experiencing flashbacks as part of a trauma response.
What are the characteristics of sensory memory?
The characteristics of sensory memory function similarly to the characteristics of other short-term memory functions, the most pressing being their duration: sensory memories last only a few seconds, for the most part, and are designed to impart impressions, rather than retaining and reliving actual sensory input. Sensory memory is also reliant entirely on the senses and does not have processing power of its own; although it may seem instantaneous, sensory input is delivered to the brain, where memory and thought processes break down an event or stimulus, rather than the sensory memory itself delivering complete, usable information.
What is human sensory memory?
Human sensory memory is a part of the short-term and working memory systems. Sensory memory is tasked with the responsibility of taking in sensory information, to fulfill the working memory’s need for a diverse set of information, to process, assess, and synthesize incoming information more effectively. Sensory memory can help assess a situation, by holding onto an image with much-needed information about a forthcoming event or can help deliver a memory to long-term storage through retaining the information and sensations provided after holding a loved one’s hand for the first time. Sensory memory might, at first glance, appear to be a memory bank for sensory input, but it is far less a memory bank, and far more a memory conveyor belt; sensory information comes in to provide additional support or information, then is removed from short-term or working memory, rather than remaining in short-term memory, or persisting into long-term memory.
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