The Science Behind Echoic Memory: How Sound Lingers in Your Mind

The Science Behind Echoic Memory: How Sound Lingers in Your Mind

This Is Why We Remember Certain Sounds

Medically reviewed by Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD, FAAN

Echoic memory, also known as auditory sensory memory, involves the short-term recall of sounds you’ve just heard. The memory of a sound might linger in your mind very briefly after the actual auditory stimulus has ended. It is a bit like an echo of a sound that exists only in your mind.

The brain utilizes several different types of memory , and echoic memory serves an essential purpose. While it is very short, lasting around four seconds, it allows us to temporarily store the sound until it can be processed. tl;dr

We’ve all heard a sound before that seems to stick out in our minds. Maybe it’s a ringing noise or a honking noise. Perhaps it’s the sound of your cat’s meow or dog’s bark. Whatever the noise, it seems to linger in your brain long after the sound has stopped. This is what’s known as echoic memory.

Unlike images that you can repeatedly go back and look at, you cannot do that with sound (unless it’s recorded of course). This is where echoic memory comes in because it allows us to recall sounds even when we’re no longer in earshot of them.

There are a few factors that can influence your auditory sensory memory and it may be possible to even improve our echoic memory. What Exactly Is Echoic Memory?

Echoic memory is defined as a type of sensory memory that temporarily stores auditory information. This serves an essential purpose: it allows a sound to be stored just long enough to be processed and understood.

During the 1970s, researchers discovered that auditory information will disappear from memory after about five seconds—unless you pay attention to it. By focusing your attentional spotlight on the sounds, the information will more likely make its way into short-term memory .

What makes echoic memory so important? Unlike visual information, which the viewer can look at often for as long as they want and be reviewed when needed, sounds are fleeting. They are presented once and usually cannot be re-experienced unless an audio recording exists. Takeaway

By having echoic memory, people are able to briefly hold on to that sound so that it can then be processed and transformed into meaning. How Does Echoic Memory Really Work?

According to one model, sensory memory is the first stage of memory . At any given moment, you are taking in sensory information about the world around you. Because there is no way to focus on all of the different details of every sensation you experience, your brain creates a snapshot of your sensory experience. This allows you to then focus on details that you might have missed.

In the case of echoic memory, this allows you to retain a brief impression of an auditory sensory experience even after the original stimulus has ended or disappeared. Then, by attending to these details, you can transfer important information into the next stage of memory, known as short-term memory. Takeaway

Echoic memory is automatic, meaning it happens without having to make a conscious effort.

After a noise is produced, the sound waves are picked up by the human ear, where they affect the auditory nerve. This turns the sound waves into electrical impulses transmitted to the brain.

Once the sound reaches the brain, an echoic memory is formed. The brain processes this information and then stores it in the primary auditory cortex (PAC) on the opposite side of the brain that receives the sound.

So if your right ear received the sound, the echoic memory for that sound would be stored in the primary auditory cortex in the left hemisphere of the brain. Sounds are often received by both ears, meaning the echoic memory is stored in both hemispheres.

The brief storage in echoic memory gives the brain time to interpret the sound and determine its characteristics. The sound may be transferred into working memory for further interpretation.

Information also cannot be retained in echoic memory through rehearsal. Subsequent sounds are also continually displacing the previously heard information. This ever-updating nature enables echoic memory and other types of sensory memory to act as real-time monitors for new information in the environment. Duration and Capacity of Echoic Memory

Echoic memory is an important part of your experience of the world, allowing you to store auditory information long enough that you can process and understand it. Takeaway

Echoic memories are very brief, lasting in the auditory storage system for approximately two to four seconds.

Brain imaging technology has also allowed researchers to learn more about how auditory sensory memory works. In one study, researchers found that after a sound stimulus, activity occurs in a portion of the auditory cortex and lasts around two to five seconds after the sound. Echoic Memory vs. Iconic Memory

However, echoic memory lasts longer than iconic memory , which is the ultra-short memory of visual imagery. Where a sound might linger in your echoic memory for up to four seconds, your ability to store visual information lasts for just a few hundred milliseconds.

While iconic memory is incredibly short, visual imagery is more enduring. In most cases, you can spend time looking at visual stimuli for longer periods, or you may even be able to view it repeatedly.

A sound, on the other hand, is often only produced once. Depending on the source of the sound, you may never be able to experience it again. This is why echoic memory is so important.

Echoic memory allows you to briefly hold on to this aural information to fully understand it, even after the original source is gone. Examples of Echoic Memory Some examples of how echoic memory is used include: Listening to music : As you listen to music, your brain briefly recalls the previous sounds, creating a connected and continuous experience that allows you to recognize the many notes as a cohesive song. Environmental noises : Echoic memory can also help you make sense of the noises you hear each day in the world around […]


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