Encoding Information Into Memory

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Memory is one of the human brain's most essential functions and can help individuals avoid danger, recall happy moments from the past, achieve the means for professional success, and remember who they are. Understanding how the brain retains and encodes information can help you understand how your brain functions in greater detail.

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There are many ways to improve memory

The role of encoding in the memory process

The first memory stage is called encoding memory, which involves how humans assimilate information into memory automatically or purposefully. Encoding is the entry of information into the memory system via sensory input. The process begins when an individual receives input via the senses, such as sight, smell, or touch. The brain labels the information received, and the new information then connects to existing information in the brain. The main ways the brain encodes memories include semantic, visual, and acoustic recording. 

From this point, you may retrieve that information with automatic or purposeful processing. Your capacity for processing can be developed with cognitive exercise in the same way your memory capacity and functions can be improved. 

An example of encoded memory may include the memory of a beach vacation. On your vacation, you may process acoustic encoding through the sound of waves crashing into the shore and visual encoding through the sight of the horizon. Semantic encoding may include a word associated with the beach, such as suntan or sand. Any or all of these elements can cause the memory of your vacation to resurface when you are reminded of them. 

Memory may not be entirely mental. Recent studies suggest that humans may possess the ability to accumulate memories of bodily experiences, including "tactile, motor, proprioceptive, painful, and interoceptive experiences, as well as accompanying emotions." This ability is referred to as "body memories."

Processes of the memory system

Memory involves a process of gathering information to be stored in the brain. The brain accumulates sensory information and then selects the memories that will continue to be stored in short-term memory. Other memories are categorized by how they are interpreted in the brain, such as memories associated with emotions versus those accumulated as factual information. The following are the different types of memory that help us learn, solve problems, communicate, and interpret the world around us. 

Sensory memory 

Sensory memory is the earliest stage of memory. The brain can store sensory memory information for a brief period of roughly half a second for visual information or three to four seconds for audio information. Depending on the information, the brain moves some sensory memories to short-term memory. 

Short-term memory

Also known as active memory, short-term memory is the information you know in the present moment. Although there have been many studies on the brain's capacity for short-term memory, the work of George Miller is often referenced.

Studies by this American psychologist suggest that it's often more practical to encode multiple pieces of information in short-term memory by chunking them together in limited numbers than by trying to remember them all individually. This process is sometimes called chunking psychology, a technique that can make it easier to absorb and remember information.

For example, if someone reads a list of items that includes the names of various shapes, small animals, and fruits to another person, then asks them to remember the list, that person may group the shapes, animals, and fruits separately. Miller found that the typical capacity for human memory is seven chunks of information. 

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Long-term memory

The brain continues to store relevant information filtered through short-term memories into long-term memory. Many memories that are retrieved are long-term memories. Some long-term memories are easy to recall into working memories, while others are harder to retrieve. Long-term memories allow individuals to recall information that helps them have conversations, make decisions, and solve problems. 

Declarative and procedural memory

Long-term memory processes are divided into declarative (explicit) and procedural (implicit) memory. Declarative memory refers to how people remember facts and events, while procedural memory allows individuals to remember experiences that become skills like riding a bike or tying their shoes.  

Semantic memory

The semantic network model of memory assumes that certain stimuli can conjure associated memories. For example, suppose you worked in a library for 20 years. In that case, you might be able to recall stories about people who regularly came into the library, special presentations that the library hosted, and other special memories about co-workers.

Episodic memory

Episodic memory is a type of memory associated with a personal experience where you can account for the details of the memory by connecting them with each other. For example, someone might remember some of the events of their wedding day when looking through old wedding photos. Memory experts are still studying why people can remember some episodic memories but not others. Recent research indicates that "a bidirectional flow of information between the neocortex and hippocampus is fundamental to the formation and retrieval of episodic memories."

Why does memory capacity vary?

Some situations may interfere with encoding and cause forgetfulness, such as inattentiveness. If you forget where your car is parked, it doesn't necessarily mean you don't know where it is but that the location wasn't encoded in your brain. Outside interference can cause problems in encoding and storing memories; sometimes, memories "compete" for prominence in the mind.

Lack of sleep, excessive substance use, stress, anxiety, and depression may also affect the brain's encoding process. Neurological damage, brain tumors, or memory disorders like dementia and Alzheimer's are common causes of long-term memory challenges.

If you have persistent memory issues, speak to your doctor. This challenge may be due to behavioral concerns but can also be a sign of a more serious condition like dementia or early-onset memory failure. 

How to better encode thoughts and improve memory

Below are a few ways you can improve your ability to encode memories: 

  • Get quality sleep each night

  • Use mnemonics, devices that associate new information with previously encoded information, like a rhyme or a song

  • Practice "chunking," where a string of information is clustered into associated groups

  • Create a "mind palace," also known as the method of loci

  • Eat foods that support brain function, such as fruits, leafy vegetables, nuts, fish, and eggs

  • Exercise regularly

  • Perform mental and cognitive exercises such as puzzles or reading

  • Acquire a hobby or learn a new skill

  • Manage your stress levels

  • Cultivate positive social relationships

Getty/MoMo Productions
There are many ways to improve memory

Support options 

Difficulties with memory can be disconcerting if they seem persistent or interfere with your daily functioning. If you struggle to store or retain memories, consider speaking to your doctor and a mental health professional. 

Challenges involving stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma can all impact functioning. When these challenges go unaddressed, their symptoms and effect on memory may worsen over time. Speaking with a mental health professional can help you improve your memory and allow you space to cope with these challenges.

With the rise in technology, finding a therapist may be possible even when you face barriers to in-person treatment. Online therapy can be convenient, effective, and sometimes more affordable than in-person therapy without insurance. Platforms like BetterHelp can connect you with qualified professionals via phone, video, or chat sessions. In addition, you can outline your goals as soon as you sign up. 

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