3 Stages of Memory – Detailed Guide

What is memory?

Memory is the function that enables up to learn and recall information. There are three stages of memory; sensory memory, short term memory, and long term memory. These three stages describe how we receive sensory information and the processes by which we store memories.

Brain Processes

The memory system is very complex and we cannot entirely understand it, despite numerous studies and a great deal of research. What is clear, is that memory affects most of the areas of the brain. In particular, it involves the brain’s hippocampus, thalamus, and amygdala.

Scientists have ascertained that if a person incurs damage to their hippocampus, then they will experience difficulties in creating new memories. Similarly, research shows that people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s have significant damage to their hippocampus.

What are the three basic memory stages?

There are three stages of memory, which are; encoding, storage, and retrieval. During any of the three stages of memory, there may be disruption and the memory will be lost.


The first of the three stages is the memory encoding process. This occurs when we are presented with new stimuli, which reach our various senses. We receive this new information and begin to process it. Then we can convert it into short-term memory or long-term memory for storage.

Memory Storage

The second stage is storage. This refers to information processing which results in the creation of new pathways in the brain. At this memory stage, we form a more permanent record of stored information, ready to be recalled later on. With the rehearsal of information or associations, information can be stored in long-term memory and may remain there indefinitely.


This is how we recall memories, hours, days, or even years after initially receiving the information. Sometimes this information is recalled easily, while at other times it can be impossible. This depends on the type of information and the processes with which the brain stores it.

Association can help with memory retrieval. In particular, emotions and smells that we associate with a certain memory can help with retrieval later on.

What happens to new information?

Sensory Memory

As we receive new information, our senses process this information as it arrives. After the stimuli recede, this information can only be held for a fraction of a second.

For example, if you look at an object and close your eyes, the image of that object will hold briefly and then disappear. We have no conscious control over this part of our memory. Because we pay no conscious attention to it, most information from our sensory memory will be forgotten.

Echoic memory refers to information we have heard, haptic memory to information we have felt, and iconic memory to information we have received visually. We also receive semantic information, which means it holds some meaning to us personally.

You may receive information in many ways. For example, if someone tells you their phone number, this is echoic information. If they then write it down, it also becomes iconic.

Short Term Memory

Most sensory memories are lost, but some may move into short-term memory (STM). This is otherwise known as working memory or active memory. Information can be stored here for a very brief time, usually, around 20 seconds. Also, at one time we can only hold around 7 pieces of information.

For example, if you were given a list of 20 items to remember and were then asked to recall them, you would struggle to recall more than 7 items and these would likely be from the beginning of the list. This is because the short-term memory becomes full and stops retaining further information. Discovered by Miller in 1956, this is known as Miller’s Law.

Miller found that, in short-term memory, most adults can store between 5 and 9 pieces of information. He stated that 7 is the magic number.

Numerous studies have since confirmed this to be the case, although there are various techniques we can use, such as chunking, which enable us to retain more than 7 items at a time.

To enable memories to move from short-term memory to long-term memory, we must process, or encode, this information. Encoding allows us to assess the meaning or significance of the information. Unless we actively attempt to retain this information, it will be lost. We can, for example, use the act of rehearsal to improve long-term memory creation.

This can be helpful when studying for a test or trying to remember important facts. Similarly, utilize the various aspects of your sensory memory. Rewrite facts you have read, and then read them out loud to yourself. This uses your iconic memory, echoic memory, and your haptic memory.

Long Term Memory

Sensory and short-term memory has limits in both duration and capacity. Conversely, long-term memory can retain information for an unlimited length of time and in an unlimited capacity. Information can move into long-term memory if it is retained from the short-term memory. The retrieval of these memories can be very easy, or more difficult, depending on the information.

There are two headings that can further define long-term memory; explicit memory and implicit memory.

Explicit memory

This refers to memories that we intentionally recall. These can be memories such as facts, data, or events. Explicit memories can be defined further under the headings of episodic memory and semantic memory.

Episodic memory

Episodic memories are things we have experienced firsthand and can be from any time in the past. For example, it may be a memory of our 10th birthday party or a soccer match we saw a few weeks ago.

Semantic memory

Semantic memories are concepts or facts that we have learned. For example, it could be the names of each president or recalling the quadratic equation from a maths lesson you had years ago.

Implicit memory

Implicit memory refers to memories that are not consciously accessed but instead are automatic. For example, riding a bike, or speaking. These activities were learned many many years ago, but we don’t recall how or why we know these things.

Disruptions to the stages of memory

There are various reasons for memory loss and can result in anything from momentary forgetfulness, to complete amnesia. For example, if something distracts the brain during the encoding process, information may be lost. Similarly, if the information is not stored properly, or is not properly transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory, then we may forget it quickly.

People may experience difficulties in retrieving information for a variety of reasons. Often, associations with emotions can make memory recall easier. For example, most people will remember where they were when they found out about 9/11. This is because of the intensity of the emotions associated with this event.

Similarly, the process can be more effective if we have an interest or passion which relates to the information we are attempting to retain. We are more likely to forget information if it does not feel relevant or important to us.

Ways to help memory retrieval

Sometimes, information is in our long-term memory, but we struggle to recall the details, or we have repressed certain details because of associated trauma. In these cases, hypnosis may be useful. A professional could hypnotize you and help you to retrieve lost information. This technique is not always considered ethical or entirely effective. Memories could be recalled incorrectly or information could be unintentionally altered during the process. Psychotherapists often consider this to be a dubious practice.

Another way to improve memory retention is to practice memory activities. You can improve your memory by playing various brain games that are available. Many tests use short-term memory recall and can help to increase recall speed. Games such as this can encourage your brain to reuse certain neural pathways which will result in strengthened pathways and improved retention and recall.

Be sure to practice your memory games, to ensure your memory lasts long into old age. Maybe have a look online for some short-term memory tests to practice your abilities.