The ultra-short-term recall of sound you’ve just heard is the process of echoic memory.

The importance of memory goes without saying. In its simplest form, memory is the cognitive process of storing information and retrieving it later. The main types of memory include sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

While short-term and long-term memory are self-explanatory, sensory memory refers to information from the outside world that is stored for future use. As the name suggests, it involves the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.

Of the five senses, sight and sound are most commonly associated with sensory memory. They’re referred to as iconic memory and echoic memory, respectively. Both are ultra-short term, differentiating them from long-term memory.

Echoic memory is unique because it stores a perfect version of the sound you’ve just heard for several seconds, such as a car honking, dog barking, or person speaking.

Echoic memory is a nearly universal experience since it is a subtype of human memory. Factors like age, neurological conditions, and hearing impairments can affect echoic memory.

Echoic memory works in the present moment as you hear a sound, such as a balloon popping or pen clicking.

Your auditory nerve, located in your ear, uses electrical signals to send the sound to your brain.

When the sound reaches the brain, the process of echoic memory begins. Your brain processes that information and stores it as auditory information in the primary auditory cortex (PAC), which is found in both hemispheres of the brain.

The information is stored in the opposite PAC of the ear that heard the sound. For example, sounds heard by the right ear will be stored in the left PAC and vice versa.

Echoic memory is only stored for about 4 seconds, allowing you to quickly recall a sound you just heard. It is then moved into your short-term memory, where the brain fully processes and assigns meaning to it.

You may remember many sounds throughout your lifetime, such as the bell ringing when you were in elementary school and the theme song of your favorite childhood television show. While these are examples of long-term auditory memory, they’re not examples of echoic memory.

Echoic memory is short-lived and the memory itself is only a few seconds. It happens almost immediately after you’ve heard a sound, so it is closer to your short-term memory than your long-term memory.

Examples of echoic memory include sounds you’ve just heard and are able to refer back to for several seconds.

Having a conversation

Spoken language is a common example of human memory, and it’s an example of echoic memory, too.

When you listen to someone talk, your echoic memory latches onto each syllable. Alone, syllables don’t have much meaning. Syllables form words, and words form sentences. Your echoic memory allows you to piece together these small bits of information to form full sentences that have meaning.

Echoic memory also comes in handy when you’re talking to another person while you’re busy or distracted. You may not fully hear what the other person said. When asking them to repeat themselves, you may realize you now remember what they said thanks to your echoic memory.

Listening to a radio show or music

When you listen to the radio, you likely only get to hear a sound once. Once the time has passed, you can’t hear the exact sound again. Though you may have missed a word being spoken or note being played, your echoic memory helps to fill in the gaps and helps you recall what you missed.

Echoic memory also helps you remember songs since they are made up of notes. As you hear each new note, your echoic memory reminds you of the last note, stringing them together to make meaning.

Hearing sounds in your environment

Examples of echoic memory aren’t always to help you remember pieces of information you didn’t hear properly. Echoic memory is also the process of audio information automatically entering your memory even if it’s not information you think you’ll need later.

There are likely always sounds around you that are temporarily stored in your echoic memory, such as:

  • sirens on a police car or ambulance
  • your cat meowing or purring
  • a neighbor’s lawn mower
  • your doorbell being rung
  • whistling of a tea kettle

Without realizing it, these sounds are stored in your echoic memory for several seconds, allowing you to perfectly recall them in the ultra-short term.

You’re likely to experience echoic memory throughout your lifetime, but echoic memories aren’t stored forever. Your echoic memory is like a holding place for sounds until they’re further processed by the brain and sent to your short-term memory storage.

Echoic memory duration is ultra-short term. It is believed to last only 2 to 4 seconds, which is significantly longer than iconic memory.

Echoic memory and iconic memory both are types of sensory memory. Iconic memory is similar to echoic memory but for the sense of sight instead of sound.

They are very similar, but the main difference is in their duration. Echoic memory stores auditory stimuli for several seconds, and iconic memory stores visual stimuli for a few hundred milliseconds.

Visual and auditory information are processed in different ways because they’re experienced differently. Visual stimuli tend to last for much longer, allowing you the opportunity to view repeatedly. Unless the sound is repeated, you may not experience it again.

We all have echoic memory, but several factors can impair it:

  • age
  • neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease
  • hearing loss
  • medical conditions like a stroke
  • language processing disorders

The sounds around you enter your echoic memory piece by piece. This helps you to understand words in the context of a sentence and notes in the context of a song. Though it lasts for only a few seconds, echoic memory helps you remember the auditory information even after it has ended.

This auditory information can go on to your short-term memory, where meaning is assigned to it.

Everyone has echoic memory, but some factors, such as age, hearing loss, and medical conditions, can affect how well you remember sounds. Over time, it’s normal for memory and hearing to decline.

Taking care of your ear health and improving your memory may help to retain your echoic memory.

If you’re experiencing severe memory loss and think your echoic memory may be affected, consider reaching out to a healthcare or mental health professional.

The following resources may also help: