What is Echoic Memory?

Michelle Overman LMFT
March 21, 2019

We all have memories impacted by our senses. We see a sign and it reminds us of where we are going or we smell warm cookies that remind us of going to our grandma’s house. Echoic memory is a type of sensory memory that includes auditory memories. Our brain takes the sounds we hear and stores them as a memory. Echoic memory is unique in that you only really hear something once. For visual memories, we can scan a page we have read multiple times. However, if we are listening to someone give a speech, we cannot re-listen to or “re-scan” a sentence a person has already said. Our brain takes the sound and replays it in our heads for a few seconds and stores it into a short-term memory.

echoic memory

When we hear a sound, our brain takes the sound and actually keeps it in our mind for a short period of time. We usually are not even aware of this process of the sound being repeated in our heads as our brain attempts to store the sound into a memory. For example, imagine that your spouse is talking to you while you are cleaning up the kitchen. At first, you notice you are actively listening, but with you performing another task while listening, you get distracted while looking for the specific cleaning product you want to use for the countertops. After a few seconds, you tell your spouse, “Hey, can you repeat that again? I got distracted by what I was doing and did not hear that last part.” Your spouse graciously repeats the last few sentences they had just said. As they repeat themselves, you realize you did remember what they said meaning you did actually hear them. That is an example of echoic memory. We do not always have to be actively listening to someone to actually hear what they are saying. Our brain works whether we are completely aware of what we are hearing or not.

Without echoic memory, we would have difficulty with multiple important things in our lives. For example, losing the ability to store sound as short-term memory can result in struggles with speech, language, and communication. Medical issues like strokes have illustrated this concept to researchers. They noticed how people who experienced some trauma to their brain struggled with memory including auditory. They found some solutions help like encouraging those individuals to listen to music and can help improve their echoic memory. Along with stroke victims, in general, people with hearing impairments are going to struggle with echoic memory. If the hearing loss is permanent, it can impact auditory memory long term. For example, young children with hearing impairments tend to have problems with auditory memory which can lead to the development of certain language disorders.

With research and technology, the development of cochlear implants, hearing aids, and the use of sign language can help people communicate and even improve hearing. For individuals who experienced a severe medical condition like a stroke, research has helped people recover their echoic memory. These developments can help combat a person’s issues with echoic memory, allowing them to retain the experience and value of auditory memory.

Michelle Overman LMFT

Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master's in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.

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