Echoic Memory: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:00 Definition
  • 0:24 A Funny Example
  • 1:02 Sensory Memory
  • 1:29 Discovery of Echoic Memory
  • 2:19 Duration of Echoic Memory
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Clause
In this lesson, you will learn about a specific sub-type of sensory memory referred to as echoic memory. Following the lesson, you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.


Echoic memory is one type of sensory memory process. Specifically, echoic memory is sensory memory associated with auditory information received from the environment. The term echoic stems from the word echo, which is in reference to the brief echo, or the reverberation of sound that is transmitted neurologically via this type of sensory memory.

A Funny Example

Think back to the last time you heard someone tell you a funny joke. After you finished laughing, you probably either repeated it out loud, or at minimum, replayed what you just heard over again in your head. Chances are that if you were asked to repeat the joke word for word immediately after you heard it, assuming it wasn't too long, you would do pretty well.

So, how does auditory information, or using the example above, the variety of sound qualities emanating from the joke teller's mouth (pitch, volume, and tone) make its way to our brain when so much is going on around us in our environments? As you might have guessed, it has a lot to do with echoic memory.

Sensory Memory

To better understand how echoic memory fits into the larger context of memory, let's take a quick look at how human memory systems are structured. According to the Atkinson-Shiffrin theory of memory, memory is comprised of three major components: sensory, short-term, and long-term. Echoic memory is a type of sensory memory. As the name implies, sensory memory involves detecting and maintaining sensory information for potential use.

Discovery of Echoic Memory

In the early 1960s, George Sperling conducted ground-breaking research pertaining to visual sensory memory, otherwise known as iconic memory. Sperling designed and carried out studies that illuminated how the visual sensory memory system works. Naturally, this influenced others to look closely at other sensory memory processes as well.

Not long after Sperling's research on iconic memory, cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser popularized the term echoic memory, referencing the auditory equivalent of what Sperling had discovered in the realm of visual sensory memory. Since the work of Sperling and Neisser, echoic memory has been studied extensively around the world by cognitive psychologists. The work of men like Sperling and Neisser has contributed greatly to the development of the knowledge base on sensory and echoic memory that we possess today.

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