Understanding the Three Main Types of Human Memory

If you are the adult child of an older parent, you need to have a basic understanding of the differences between the impact of the natural aging process on memory and memory changes that are arising out of the onset of dementia. As part of developing such an understanding, it is helpful to have a basic appreciation of the three main types of human memory. The three main types of human memory are:

  • Sensory memory
  • Long-term memory
  • Short-term memory

Sensory Memory

Sensory memory is the type of human memory that is derived from the five senses. Sensory memories are experiences that last from within a few seconds to a few minutes. Researchers have found that most sensory memories actually are gone within a quarter of a second. Even though sensory memories are truly fleeting, they are the basis from all which short-term and long-term memories start. 

There are specific terms associated with sensory memory that can be helpful to generally understand:

  • Iconic – relating to our visual experiences
  • Echoic – relating sounds we hear
  • Haptic – relating to touch
  • Olfactory – relating to smell
  • Gustatory – relating to taste

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is for storage over a lengthier period of time. Scientists have come to conclude that long-term memory has a limited capacity in a human being. Researchers have concluded that we have the equivalent of one zettabyte of memory in our brains. This amount of memory capacity is considered enough to store approximately 30 percent of all of the information in world. There are different elements of long-term memory:

Explicit – memory of specific recollections and events that takes a conscious effort to recall.

Episodic – this kind of long-term memory relates to episodes – brief snippets from your life – and their recall. These memories are all the stronger if they are associated with emotions whether good or bad.

Semantic – this is the body of knowledge stored in our brains that helps us understand and describe the world.

Implicit – this is a kind of memory that does not have to be consciously recalled and can affect thoughts and behaviors. These memories become automatic after an initial period of exposure, study, and practice.

Procedural – This is often the most highlighted element inside the implicit memory category. This kind of long-term memory relates to carrying out a certain task or list of tasks.

Short-Term Memory

Having passed through our sensory memory, information then travels to our short-term memories. Like sensory memories, we hold new memories for a very short period. Short term memories usually last up to 30 seconds. A renowned research study concluded that we have five to nine slots available in our short-term memories. All of our memories pass through this stage and they are either discarded as they are not needed for long or they get retained and passed into longer-term memory stores.

How to Improve Sensory Memory

Improving sensory memory is highly challenging. The best advice in regard to improving sensory memory is just to be more intentional and present when using your senses. In other words, pay attention. Paying attention means really take in the things that you see, hear, touch, and feel. Do not let yourself become distracted.

The more associations that come from your sensory memories as they enter your memory system, the more that they are likely to be remembered. If you don’t pay proper attention in the first place, memories can never become fixed.

How to Improve Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is where many people would like to make improvements. There are some ideas that can be helpful in improving long-term memory. These include getting appropriately emotional. 

The more emotional a memory, good or bad, the more likely you are to remember it. It may not be advisable to go around looking for positive or negative emotional experiences to improve our memories but we can use this knowledge to trick our brains into remembering things by using emotive images or words. This associative technique is taught as part of creating memory palaces. It is worth mentioning flashbulb memory which helps illustrate the point. 

How to Improve Short-Term Memory

There are some rather simple ways to improve short-term memory. What oftentimes is called chunking is a technique that can improve short-term memory. This is a technique that involves breaking down a long string of letters or numbers into more manageable chunks.

Breaking something down into smaller parts makes it easier to remember for most people. You may wish to extend this idea by actively realizing that information you are constantly committing short-term memory may have a rightful place in your long-term memory – examples here could be passwords, bank account information and passport numbers.