What is echoic memory and how can it affect us?


‘In memory everything seems to happen to music’ – Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

Echoic memory is a part of sensory memory and refers to auditory memories. The sensory memory that takes into account sounds that you’ve just encountered is a form of this memory type. Memories and sound are important aspects of your hearing and your ears, so we wanted to take an in-depth look at echoic memory, what it is and how it can affect us.

In terms of types of memories, we remember sounds and words in different ways. When looking at something, we are able to scan over it many times, take it in and remember it. When it comes to auditory memory, we cannot scan over the same information several times, for example, when we are listening to the radio, we cannot hear the exact word, phrase or statement again once the time has passed. Echoic memory is, therefore defined as being the short-term sensory memory of auditory stimuli. Visual and Auditory memories are not long-term memories so they are temporary and fade quickly compared to other types of memories. Iconic (visual) memory is thought to last only 1 second, whereas echoic memory is thought to last longer and it currently estimated at 4 seconds.

But how exactly does echoic memory work? Well, when you hear a sound, whether it’s someone talking, a car in the street or some music, your echoic memory will engage with the sound and transmit it to the brain. The brain then creates and keeps a perfect version of that sound for a brief period of time. Whether you pay attention to the sound being repeated in your head. If you’re not fully listening to a conversation, you might ask whomever you’re speaking to to repeat what they were saying and then you realise that you’ve already heard what they’re about to repeat to you. That’s echoic memory doing its work. As the saying goes, just because you weren’t listening doesn’t mean you didn’t hear!

Echoic memory, like many aspects of the human mind and body, can become impaired which can have an effect on how someone might live their day-to-day lives. The inability to retain the brains versions of the sounds for the short period of time that echoic memory works for (about 4 seconds) is linked to speech impairments, difficulty with language development and communicative deficits. Echoic memory can also be affected after particular types of strokes, however, studies have shown that by encouraging stroke victims to listen to music or audiobooks daily, their echoic memory can be improved noticeably.  Sensory impairments, including memories and particular types of hearing loss are seen to be common in stroke patients.

It’s important to look after you ears, whether it’s your hearing or memory. If you’re concerned about you hearing health, you can book an appointment online today or visit your local Hearing Centre.