what is sensory memory

Our flash storage: Understanding sensory memory

October 5, 2023
  •  BY 

Ever wondered why the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked bread can transport you back to Sunday mornings at Grandma's? Or how the briefest flash of a movie scene can make you recall an entire plot? 

Say hello to sensory memory—the unsung hero of our cognitive processes.

What is sensory memory, anyway?

Sensory memory is the super brief storage of sensory information—we're talking milliseconds to a few seconds—that persists after the original stimuli has ended. 

As the name implies, sensory memories come from the five senses and have different names accordingly:

  • Sight: Iconic memory
  • Sound: Echoic memory
  • Touch: Haptic memory
  • Smell: Olfactory memory
  • Taste: Gustatory memory 

Fun fact: echoic memory vs. iconic memory

While most sensory memories are super short-lived, echoic memory, which is related to hearing, tends to last a tad longer than iconic memory, which is related to sight. This means that you're more likely to remember the last few words of someone's sentence even if you weren’t paying full attention. (That being said, don’t take this as an excuse to daydream during conversations!)

The Sperling Experiment

In the early 1960s, George Sperling conducted a series of experiments that provided key insights into iconic memory. Participants were briefly shown a grid of letters and then asked to recall them. Despite only seeing the grid for a fraction of a second, many could recall a significant portion of the letters. This experiment highlighted the fleeting but high-capacity nature of our iconic memory. 

Why do we need sensory memory?

Imagine if every sound, taste, touch, sight, or smell you encountered demanded your attention. Exhausting, right? 

Sensory memory filters out the unneeded stimuli and only forwards the relevant bits to your short-term memory, ensuring you're not overwhelmed by the vast amounts of sensory information you encounter.

Bonus info: Check out this article if you want to learn more about working memory vs. short-term memory.

From sensory to short-term

Only a fraction of all the sensory information you receive makes it to your short-term memory. It's the stimuli you consciously attend to that get this VIP pass. 

For instance, while reading this, you might not notice the hum of your refrigerator, but now that I've pointed it out and it has your attention, that sound might shift from your echoic memory to your short-term memory.

Tapping into Sensory Memory

Marketers, educators, and even chefs tap into our sensory memories to create lasting impacts. 

That catchy jingle? It's leveraging your echoic memory. The visually stunning presentation slide? It's banking on your iconic memory. 

So, while sensory memory might be fleeting, its impact can be lasting if tapped effectively.

Explore learning games to improve working memory on Elevate

Sensory memory is like the gatekeeper of your cognition. It decides what gets in and what stays out. While its primary job is to prevent information overload, it plays a pivotal role in shaping your perceptions, experiences, and even your long-term memories.

So the next time a waft of perfume takes you on a nostalgia trip or a song snippet makes you recall the entire chorus, take a moment to appreciate the incredible powerhouse that is your sensory memory.

And if you'd like to exercise additional aspects of your memory, consider downloading the Elevate brain training app on iOS or Android. With several games specifically designed to improve memory skills, it'll help you stay sharp for years to come.


Unlock your cognitive potential with fun brain training exercises

  • Discover how memory training exercises can improve your cognitive function.

How to improve working memory

  • Learn why working memory plays an essential role in your daily life and tips for improving it.

How to remember names

  • Learn the brain science behind why remember names is hard and learn tips to make it easier.
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