Theories and Stages of Memory


1.0 Introduction

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Our memory is part of being human. It is also an indicator that we experienced and lived to this day. Theoretically, according to Mastin (n.d.), memory is our ability to encode, store, retain and consequently recall information and past experiences in the human brain. In other words, past experiences influenced our present and future behavior. When the outcome is negative we tend not to repeat what caused it, but if the outcome is positive we do the opposite.

For example, as you go to work, you use a certain road every time. However, that route is always experiencing traffic jams that cause you to be late for work. By chance, one day you used another smaller road and you found that it is less congested and thus you arrive earlier to work than usual. From that day onwards since the smaller road benefits you more you will use it more frequently. This means, you used your previous experience and act accordingly the next time you go through the same situation again.

In this paper, we will discuss and delve into more about memory as a whole. We will first discuss on the stages of the Multi-store model of memory which was founded by two researchers, Richard Atkinson and Richard Shriffin. The next section consists of what Short Term Memory and Long Term Memory are and their differences. This second section is a direct continuity of Memory Stage which is in the first section. The last section of the contents is in a different direction altogether. It consists of my own conceptualization the functions of memory system in human interaction model

The references for this paper are mainly research journals and also website articles. Since there are a number of them, they are put in the References section.

2.0 Stages of Multi-Store Model and Memory

One of the most used memory models by psychologists and non-psychologists alike is the Multi-Store model by Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968). They describe memory in terms of information flowing through a system. There are three stages of learning and memory of the Multi-Store model. The three stages which are processes are called Encoding, Storage and Recall or Retrieval (McLeod, 2007).

The first stage, which is also the most important stage in creating new memory is called Encoding. It is the process which allows the information collected to be transformed or converted into a form that can be stored within our brains to be recalled later on. The process of Encoding is done in four different ways which are: Acoustic, Visual, Semantic and Tactile Encoding (Mastin, n.d.).

Acoustic Encoding is the encoding (remembering and understanding) of the sounds that you hear: especially the sounds of words. When you repeat information rhythmically it is considered as Acoustic Encoding. For instance, learning the “ABC”. The alphabets of the “ABC” are put into a song similar to the nursery rhyme song “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. Other than making the learning of ‘ABC’ more enjoyable, children will remember them faster. It is the same case for the learning of the multiplication timetable. When reciting multiplication timetable, many can recite “six times six equals to thirty-six” rhythmically. This is due to the fact that the sound of the number “six” was highlighted three times.

When Acoustic Encoding is the encoding of sound, Visual Encoding is the encoding of image. Visual Encoding relates to visual sensory information which is stored within the iconic memory (temporarily) first and later transferred into the long-term storage (permanent). One of the vital elements in visual encoding is the amygdala, which is a complex structure of neurons. Visual input as well as other systems’ input are accepted in the amygdala where the conditioned stimuli are then encoded into positive or negative values. As an example, if you are shown a list of words for one second. You would find that you will be able to remember if there was a word which is written in different color, or if there was a word written in bold or underlined. Visually encoded information is very fleeting and we forget them easily. We remember better when the information is encoded acoustically.

The next type of Encoding is Semantic Encoding. Semantic Encoding is the processing of meaning, especially of words, though not exclusively. Most of the time it works hand in hand with Visual Encoding. For instance, when someone says “animal, grey and large” you will build a mental image on what he/she are referring to which is most probably an elephant. The last of the them is Tactile Encoding. It is based on the encoding of feeling especially touch. In a nutshell, each of the types of Encoding(s) starts with stimulus which gives out impulses/signals (nerve) which later will be processed and encoded. Paying attention is important when our memory is to be properly encoded. Thus, not all stimuli will pass through our conscious awareness, instead some will be filtered out.

After the Encoding Stage comes the Memory Stage. According to Atkinson and Shriffin’s (1968) “Memory Stage Model”, there are three distinct stages in the Memory Stage itself. They are Sensory Memory/Store, Short Term Memory and Long Term Memory. All three differ in terms of capacity, function and duration.

Sensory Memory which is at times called Iconic Memory holds information only for a few seconds (brief storage information). For instance, while flipping through a magazine we see eye-catching wordings of an advertisement, but after flipping to next the page we cannot remember what was actually written. This stage implies that something perceptual takes place. A stimulus might already be gone but we may still perceive it after even for just a brief moment. The next two stages of the Memory Stage will be discussed it Section 2.0. .The information people received which is stored in sensory memory is just long enough to be transferred to short-term memory

The last stage of the stages of learning and memory of the multi-store model is the Retrieval Stage/Memory Retrieval. It is a process of getting or recalling information from your Storage Memory. For instance, if you can remember what you bought yesterday, information is successfully recalled from your memory into your conscious mind. The process of Retrieval is stimulated by the Retrieval Cues that includes mood and associations. If one cannot retrieve an information the cause may simply be because they did not pay attention enough, thus only some were encoded in the memory or it might be something as serious as having an amnesia.

Ultimately, the role of short-term memory is to file information for temporary usage. If it is not consolidated, it is discarded. This process of discarding is important to make room for learning and new memories. But once a memory is stored in the long-term memory bank, it is stored there forever. It may not feel like it is stored there forever. Sometimes, you may not be able to recall something that is stored in the long-term memory bank—nevertheless, it is there. Because once memory is stored, it is permanent.

3.0 Short Term Memory Versus Long Term Memory

In Section 2.0, we have discussed about the Memory Stage with one of its memory store which is Sensory Motor. In this section, we will further delve into the Memory Stage by dicussing about the other two stores which are Short Term and Long term Memory and its differences in terms of their storage capacities and forgetting mechanisms.

Short Term Memory (STM) has a limited storage capacity. Only about seven (plus or minus two) unrelated chunks of items can be held with a time duration of 20-30 seconds at once (Mohs, 2007). For example, remembering a phone number until it is keyed into a mobile phone. After a few seconds you might not remember the set of phone numbers anymore if no effort is made to retain them. However, by using memory strategies, we can somewhat increase our memory capacity. Take for instance a ten-digit number such as 9006783456 may be too long for the use of Short Term Memory. For the set of number to stay in your STM and long enough for you to key in your mobile phone is to break it into chunks like 900-678-3456.

On the other hand, Long Term Memory (LTM) has an unlimited storage capacity for information. In Short Term Memory, information remains as long as we think about it and will be discarded once we stop. In LTM, information is permanently stored in human memory. To retain information in LTM, a relation should be made between the new information to the ones we already know. This process is known as coding as information. Short Term Memory lacks this coding process, thus information is fleeting. If an information is important enough in the STM, it will be transferred to LTM. If there is an effort in retaining information like repetitively going through the information again and again (reviewing) we can remember it permanently. The more repetition and reviewing of information is made, the brain makes more neuronal connections (stronger neural pathways). At the same time, between the two neurons, the synapses become stronger because of more frequent signals passed between them. It is also important to realize that for memory to be consolidated there should be no interference present. In addition, when it comes to consolidation of memory and learning, sleeping plays an important role for both of them. This is proven by the founding that during sleep, the genes of rats are more expressive. In the hippocampus, the displayed activities during spatial learning is replayed.

The next aspect that would be highlighted is their forgetting mechanism. In both STM and LTM a loss of information can be experienced. However, their forgetting mechanism differs from one another (Walton, 2010). In STM, loss of information can happen when there is interference. Interference happens when old information interferes with the learning of the new information. This thus makes the stored information irretrievable. Besides the Intereference Theory, there is also the Decay Theory. Decay happens when information is gradually forgotten as time goes by. It is important to note that it is not because of the effects of replacement as the Interference Theory.

In contrast, Long Term Memory, loss of information is due to retrieval failure and not loss of the information. When information is not encoded correctly, our Long Term Memory will discard it out of the system. However, our memory can retrieve information if the cue matches the cue present during encoding time on the condition that loss of information is not because of brain trauma from accidents or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

4.0 Concept Model of the Functions of Memory System in Human Interactions

Diagram 1

Concept Model of the Functions of Memory System in Human Interactions

There are many ways to conceptualize the functions of memory system in terms of human interactions. However, in the following is my own conceptualization of the mentioned topic. In my concept, the functions of memory (in human interactions) is divided into two: Social Function and also Experiential Learning (which are shown in Diagram 1). The first one that will discussed is Social Function.

Good social environment is vital for strong social bonds which is necessary for our well-being; mentally as well as physically. According to Perry et al (2011), our memories are projected onto other people understand them better and to empathize their experiences. Our memory is constructive in nature where past experiences emerge together. In a certain way, this lets us to be in other people’s shoes; imagining what their experiences are like (Hassabis et al., 2013). Furthermore, this too promotes understanding and being more social. When we are experiencing the social world we must often recall, maintain, exploit and lastly update on the knowledge we have about others. People tend to react to certain social situations based on their prior experiences. According to Ciaramelli et al. (2013), we humans tend to empathize on people who are in the a similar situation that experienced in the past.

However, these are in exception of amnesiacs. They do not maintain social bonds like other normal people. They too tend to have a smaller social circle. According to Beadle et al. (2013), Adult-onset hippocampal patients who suffers from amnesia are reported to have lower levels of understanding and no increase in prosocial behaviours.

Besides Social Function, there is Experiential Learning. Both of these do overlap with each other, but they differ in settings. Experiential learning is more to workplace human interaction while Social is more to less professional relationships.

Experiential Learning, in general is the process of learning through experience that we store in our memory. Since the dawn of time, humankind has gone through various trials and tribulations. We are what we are today because from our ancestors up to us in the present time learn to not repeat our mistakes, but vice versa when it comes to something positive. However, how can Experiential Learning relate to human interactions? Learning through experience is often used in workplaces.

Let us take soccer players as an example. During practice sessions the team members will learn and practice the strategies of blocking, getting, passing the ball and catching it. However, the most important aspect they will practice on is teamwork because soccer is not a one man show. Coaches will see their individual talents and blend all them together to create a powerful team. One player’s talent may complement another player’s so they need to function together collectively. These practice sessions act as a simulator of the real game. By the time the players are joining in a real game, they would already have enough experience to ‘read’ their teammates present and next move which is crucial to score a point.

This is similar in the corporate world. Members of a team need to develop a composite image of itself through discussions that develops the capacity to reflect their experiences. These discussions will pin-point the differences of experiences in team members that will then be blended together (Adams & Kayes, 2010). According to Baker, Jensen & Kolb (2002), “Members need to respect and be receptive to differing points of view; to take time to reflect on consequences of action and the big picture; and to desire growth and development.”As time goes on, even negative factors associated with teamwork can be overcome when teams become able to learn from experience.

5.0 Conclusion

In summary, we have gone through the three stages of learning and memory of the multi-store model. These processes are called Encoding, Storage and Recall or Retrieval. Encoding which is an information procession into our memory is further broken down to different types of ways to encode which are Acoustic, Visual, Semantic and Tactile Encoding. In addition to those, Storage stage is where we store information in our memory and Retrieval is process of recalling them back to conscious mind.

Besides Sensory Memory in our Storage, the other two which are Short Term Memory and Long Term Memory is explained in the next section. We have discussed how different they are in terms of storage capacities and forgetting mechanisms Short Term Memory has limited amount of storage capacity as compared to Long Term Learning which is unlimited. Their forgetting mechanisms, in other words loss of information also differ with STM due to loss of information and LTM due to retrieval failure.

My conceptualization model of functions of memory system in terms of human interactions is divided into two which are Social Function and also Experiential Learning. They differ only in social settings and they overlap greatly with one another.

In conclusion, in my opinion, we barely scratched the surface of our knowledge on human memory. I believe there is more to learn and discover than Atkinson’s and Shriffin’s Multi-Store model. With that being said, I hope researchers continue the journey in knowing how our memory truly works. Knowing how memory works is one step closer to knowing how the human mind works and consequently how humans work are as a whole.


Adams, A., & Kayes, D. (2010). Experiential Learning In Teams. Simulation & Gaming, 330-354. Retrieved from

Atkinson, R.C.; Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). “Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes”. In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T. The psychology of learning and motivation (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195

Beadle J. N., Tranel D., Cohen N. J., Duff M. C. (2013). Empathy in hippocampal amnesia. Front. Psychol. 4:69 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00069

Ciaramelli E., Bernardi F., Moscovitch M. (2013). Individualized Theory of Mind (iToM): when memory modulates empathy. Front. Psychol. 4:4 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00004

Hassabis D., Spreng R. N., Rusu A. A., Robbins C. A., Mar R. A., Schacter D. L. (2013). Imagine all the people: how the brain creates and uses personality models to predict behavior. Cereb. Cortex. [Epub ahead of print]. 10.1093/cercor/bht042

Mastin, L. (n.d.). What Is Memory? – The Human Memory. Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Multi Store Model of Memory – Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968. Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Stages of Memory – Encoding Storage and Retrieval. Retrieved from

Mohs, R. (2007, May 8). How Human Memory Works. Retrieved from

Perry D., Hendler T., Shamay-Tsoory S. G. (2011). Projecting memories: the role of the hippocampus in emotional mentalizing. Neuroimage 54, 1669–1676 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.08.057

Walton, J. E. (2010, June 15). Long-term vs. Short-term Memory – How to Maximize Both. Retrieved from

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