How Does the Human Memory Work?

By | June 17, 2017

How does human memory work? Essay sample

When it comes to memory, people usually refer to it as to a single well-defined human ability. However, memory is not a concrete property suitable for one’s observation or measurement on a specific scale, which challenges the concept definition. Moreover, memory is complex and multidimensional rather than a one-faceted property. The issue of human memory has been a popular subject to research and debates for centuries with various approaches applied to gain an insight into its nature, processes, and impairments. In simple words, memory is the knowledge of earlier experiences, events, or facts that have dropped out of one’s consciousness with the time with the mind currently recalling them back into thought (Taylor, 2013). Therefore, memory is a mental activity accountable for inputting, coding processing, and storing information that contributes to individual’s knowledge and wisdom. Although a person is not necessarily aware of or think about each informational unit acquired during the lifespan, he or she activates the knowledge when making decisions.

In line with multiple physiological approaches applied to the study of human memory, different memory categorizations exist. Some scholars distinguish memory types by the experience types or language of expression risen by their recall. Thus, declarative memory makes declarations about events or knowledge experienced in the past, while procedural memory informs actions in alignment with past learning. Another categorization of human memory relies on different kinds of mental experience. As such, episodic memory accountable for episodic experiences in specific places and times depends on the process of remembering to allow the mind to travel back in time for re-experiencing those events. In its turn, semantic memory that concerns knowledge of facts and general laws goes along with knowing consciousness. Another kind of human memory determined is flashbulb memory referring to the quality of explicit recollection of emotionally rich events, which are frequently subject to later discussion in individual’s life (Medin, 2004). These are the most substantiated categorizations of memory types, yet not all that exist.

Though the reviewed approach to distinguishing different memory types present value, there is one more approach, the mostly recalled and exploited one, to categorizing memory based on its processing activities. Psychologists Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968) proposed a framework of multi-store memory in support of their argument of human memory presents an evolution of processing stages for recording and storing the incoming information. In their psychological model, scholars determined three processing stages, each of which serving as a storage for information holding. In detail, the first processing stage – sensory memory – refers to information acquired through human senses, such as sight, hearing, or touch. This memory stage possesses a limited capacity of storing information, as iconic memory of the visual system requires visual stimuli, such as size, color, graph, shape, or diagram, while echoic memory of the hearing system need auditory stimuli. In the sensory memory, information lacks associative meaning, which reduces its value (Zheng, 2012).

This function is performed by the second stage of information storing – short-term memory – that retains information in a temporary storage by encoding it visually and acoustically. Short-term memory stores information that is quite long for the usage. Another characteristic of this processing stage is that it places the environment aside from the memory system, which allows focusing individual’s attention on a particular issue or event without distracting its by supplementary phenomena in the environment. When rehearsing information stored in short-term memory, a person retains this information in consciousness encoring it into long-term memory. Thus, the third processing stage of long-term memory stores information for a long time, ranging from minutes to lifetime. This memory type retains meaning related to an informational unit, such as imageries, procedural memory, and semantic memory. Rehearsal is the major technique used to encode short-term information into long-term memory (Zheng, 2012). These three stages of human activity constitute the processes and function of human memory.


Medin, D. (2004). Stevens’ handbook of experimental psychology, memory, and cognitive processes. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Taylor, A. K. (2013). Encyclopedia of human memory. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Zheng, R. Z. (2012). Effective online learning for older people: A heuristic design approach. In: Zheng, R. Z., Hill, R. D., & Gardner, M. K. (Eds.), Engaging older adults with modern technology: Internet use and information access needs (pp. 142-160). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

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