8.2 Encoding Memory: Definition & Types

Jan 14, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch8 How the Brain Stores & Recalls Information

In this lesson, you will learn about encoding memory, which is the initial process in learning new information. You will also gain knowledge about the different areas of encoding memory, including visual, acoustic and semantic.

Retaining Memories

Have you ever bumped into an old classmate whose name you couldn’t remember but you could visualize exactly where he sat in English class? Memory can be tricky and selective in deciding what’s important to us. Our brains go through a few different steps to understand and hold information in our memory.

Sometimes, the brain also deletes information that we don’t really need any more. Maybe you and this old classmate discussed homework while in class, but didn’t get to know each other personally. Therefore, your brain only retained that you shared a class together, the class subject you discussed, and where the individual sat. Unless you became friends or the person had very charming or eccentric qualities, he might have just been another student in the class.

In this example, you see verbal, acoustic and semantic encoding in action. After completing the lesson, you will better understand why you may remember where in the class your classmate sat (visual encoding), have a general idea of which subject you shared information about (acoustic encoding), and the context in which you are able to recall this person (semantic encoding).

What is Encoding Memory?

There are three main categories of memory: encoding, storage and retrieval. We will focus specifically on the initial step in memory, which is encoding. The encoding process is the brain’s way of understanding information and converting it into memory for storage and retrieval. The encoding process occurs when information is first processed and categorized. Much of the information that a person is exposed to goes through quite a journey so that it can be understood in a meaningful way.

For instance, when the eye makes contact with a new object, such as a word on a page, it is first greeted by the retina, which is the lining of the inside of our eyes. The retina then sends the visual information to the optic nerve, which then transports information to the brain. It goes through many other twists and turns in the brain before it reaches the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain, whose jobs are to let a person know that the information being processed is a word. Amazingly, this complex and rapid journey takes place simply to accomplish the initial step of recognition and categorization.

There are three main areas of encoding memory that make the journey possible: visual encoding, acoustic encoding and semantic encoding. It is interesting to know that tactile encoding, or learning by touch, also exists but is not always applicable. Therefore, in this lesson, the focus will remain on visual, acoustic and semantic encoding.

Visual Encoding

The process of visual encoding begins when a visual image is converted to understanding it as an object. The best way to understand visual encoding is to think of a brand logo. When we see the logo for Ford or Starbucks, a very specific picture comes to mind. Iconic memory plays a large part in visual encoding. Iconic memory is an important component of visual encoding and allows us to register large amounts of visual information for brief periods of time. This is why we are able to take in a large amount of visual stimuli while driving for instance. In the moment, we are able to make quick decisions about where we want to direct our car, but only for a few moments. If we try to remember each detail from our drive later, it would be very difficult. Iconic memory is highly involved in visual encoding. The large amount of data we are allowed to see converts into visual encoding that later makes sense.

Acoustic Encoding

Another part of encoding involves the acoustic encoding process. This is when a person begins to understand the auditory aspects of an object or experience. The phonological loop is a vital component of acoustic encoding, and involves two processes. First, information comes into the brain acoustically for a very short period of time, maybe one to two seconds. Next, in order to retain this quickly passing information, rehearsal is required. Therefore, when we attempt to remember a chunk of information, we rehearse by saying it out loud multiple times.

Semantic Encoding

Semantic encoding is another aspect of encoding memory. During this stage, a new concept can be understood in a more applicable way that goes further than learning the sensory aspects of it, as occurs in visual and acoustic encoding. Semantic encoding is the process that best solidifies a new concept into a person’s understanding because it is understood within a context that is meaningful. For instance, when you read the word ‘awesome’ for the first time, it may not have had much significance. However, when it is placed in a context as a word that also means ‘super’ and ‘great’, you realize it has multiple uses. The word is now ready to be used to form a sentence, communicate with others, and even help someone feel good about himself by letting him know he’s awesome.

Another Look at Visual, Acoustic and Semantic Encoding

Let’s look at another example of how encoding memory works. In this case, we’ll imagine that someone is seeing a ball for the very first time. During visual encoding, the ball can be understood as being round and orange if it’s a basketball or oval and brown if it’s a football.

In acoustic encoding, the brain registers the ball’s sound while it is being bounced or thrown. Therefore, even if a person is not watching the ball bounce, she still knows the sound is associated with a ball.

Lastly, in semantic encoding, the idea of a ball creates associations in the brain, such as it being thrown, bounced and used for play. Also thanks to semantic encoding, there is no chance that a person would use a golf ball to play basketball because semantic encoding allows us to learn to differentiate between the many types of balls.

Seeing a ball contributes to visual encoding, hearing a ball bounce contributes to acoustic encoding, and seeing a ball used in play contributes to semantic encoding.


Lesson Summary

Encoding memory is the first step in learning new information, which later gets shifted over to the areas of storage and retrieval memory. In this lesson, we focused closely on the concept of encoding memory. We looked at three ways information can be encoded: visual encoding, acoustic encoding and semantic encoding.

Visual encoding allows the brain to visualize what the concept looks like. Acoustic encoding allows the brain to hear the sounds associated with a new concept. Semantic encoding places a new concept into a context, for instance, it helps a person understand the difference between a football and volleyball. Semantic encoding also helps us understand the purpose of each of the balls. These three methods of encoding new information together create the fascinating initial process of memory.

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