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Memory Process: How Do We Encode Our Memories?

So far we have looked at the different types of memory. Let us now look at the Memory Process and explore how sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory work together to create our memories.

Have you ever moved house or transferred your possessions to storage? What does it involve? The memory process (also called the anatomy of a memory) can be explained by taking the example of moving house-hold inventory to long-term storage.
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Off-Site Storage


Packing Encoding
Storing Storing
Retrieval Retrieval or Recall



Encoding a memory is similar to packing an item for storage. It involves taking an input and personalizing it to create a memory. This is the process that differentiates one person’s memory from that of another person even if both are exposed to the very same input. Encoding can take any, some or all of the following forms.

1. Sensory Encoding is based on input from the senses

  • Acoustic encoding involves auditory information. When we associate a favourite song with a particular partner or event, we are using acoustic encoding.
  • Visual encoding: John Medina, in his Brain Rules book, said that Vision trumps all other senses. So this type of encoding can be powerful. When we use pictures to convey our messages, the audience can use the picture as a clue to store and recall the information.
  • Tactile encoding involves how something feels through the sense of touch.
  • Olfactory encoding involves the sense of smell. Scientists are beginning to realise just how powerful this encoding is in creating long-lasting memories and more importantly in recalling the stored memories.
  • Gustatory encoding involves the sense of taste.

All the five senses are involved in the process of encoding. So what is the difference between sensory memory and sensory encoding? Sensory memory that is retained through the process of paying attention (implicit or explicit) is the basis of sensory encoding. So the more attention we pay to the sensory input, the more detailed is the sensory encoding. This helps to create better memories.

2. Emotional Encoding is the process of encoding associated emotions with the events one experiences.

Emotions play a major role in the memory process.

  • Priority in Processing: When attention is limited, inputs that are emotional in nature are encoded better than others.
  • When one is emotionally attached or interested to an event, inputs that are central to the event are better encoded and processed. This is done at the expense of inputs that are peripheral to the event. What this means is that emotion helps in better remembering vital details but not necessarily the marginal ones.
  • Relating events to autobiographical events and emotions helps to encode it better.

3. Semantic Encoding is the process of encoding meaning or relevancy to input from the senses.

Organising the input to be meaningful can take different forms.

  • Mnemonic encoding is an effective strategy for memorizing. As a student, I was taught the BODMAS rule to remember the sequence of arithmetic operations in a statement and I still remember that. (BODMAS: Brackets, Power, Division, Multiplication, Addition and Subtraction)
  • Chunking is the process organizing into smaller, meaningful portions.
  • Association with existing knowledge. Teachers refer to this as scaffolding where new information is presented in small chunks and linked and tied to existing knowledge. This helps in better retention of the information that is presented.
  • Association with possible application. Encoding sensory inputs with possible areas of their application means you are encoding it with possible relevancy. For example, I am currently involved in running my blog. If I attend a seminar on blogging strategies, I will be encoding the inputs with possible application on my own blog. That semantic encoding, will help me in remembering the information better.

Encoding Strategies that will help develop long-lasting memories.

1. Multi-sensory encoding. The various sensory memories are stored in different parts of the brain. Combining the different senses, means more of the brain is involved in creating and storing the memory. This leads to stronger encoding and memory. Including text, figures and speech (presenter) in presentations, using videos that integrate both audio and visual encoding and projects where participants have to do some actions (tactile encoding) are good examples of sensory integration.

2. Combining different encoding strategies. Mind-mapping combines both chunking and visual encoding and is a powerful method for encoding.

3. Attention, concentration or focus (call it what you will) is a vital ingredient in successful encoding. Its importance cannot be stated enough. Multi-tasking dilutes the attention given to an individual task or event and thus reduces the strength of the resultant encoding.


For further reading:

  1. Encoding and Memory

The next post will look at the remaining two aspects of the Memory Process.

Previous posts on memory

  1. What every Brain Owner should know about their Memory
  2. Types of Memory: Importance of Sensory Memory
  3. The Truth about Short-Term Memory
  4. Long-Term Memory: What is that Elephantine Memory?


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Memory Process: How Do We Encode Our Memories? is a post from: Brain Training For All

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Related posts:

  1. Long-Term Memory: What is that Elephantine Memory?
  2. The Truth about Short-Term Memory
  3. Types of Memory: Importance of Sensory Memory
  4. What every Brain Owner should know about their Memory
  5. 12 Rules for Optimum Brain Performance

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