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Echoic Memory

By Ayesh Perera, published April 05, 2021

Take-home Messages
  • Ulric Neisser introduced the term ‘echoic memory’ to signify a type of sensory memory that registers and temporarily holds auditory information (sounds) until it is processed and comprehended.
  • The initial search for echoic memory emulated Sperling’s experiments on iconic memory, but subsequent research has utilized more advanced neuropsychological techniques.
  • The brain regions involved in echoic memory include Broca’s area, the dorsal premotor cortex, the posterior parietal cortex, the superior temporal gyrus and the inferior temporal gyrus.
  • Research suggests that echoic memory grows with age until adulthood, and then declines with old age.

Echoic memory is a type of sensory memory that registers and temporarily holds auditory information (sounds) until it is processed and comprehended (Carlson, 2010). This sensory store can retain a great amount of auditory information for a brief period of 3 to 4 seconds (Clark, 1987).

Following the initial registration, the sounds resonate and are replayed in the mind (Radvansky, 2005). Echoic memory encodes only a stimulus’ moderately primitive features (Strous, Cowan, Ritter, Javitt, 1995).

The German-American psychologist Ulric Neisser introduced the term ‘echoic memory’ in 1967 to denote the abovementioned short representation of auditory stimuli (Darwin, Turvey & Crowder, 1972).

The initial search for a possible sensory memory store in the auditory domain resembled the paradigm of partial report studies employed by George Sperling in his research on iconic memory.

Subsequently, more advanced neuropsychological techniques were utilized to estimate the duration, location and capacity associated with the echoic memory store.

Examples of Echoic Memory

    Listening to a song: When we listen to music our brains briefly recall each note and connects it to the ensuing note. Consequently, the brain recognizes the sequences of notes as a song.

    Conversing with another person: When we hear spoken language, our echoic memories retain every individual syllable. Our brains comprehend words by associating each syllable with the preceding one.

    Repeated speech: When what someone says to us is not clear, we may request the repetition of what was mentioned. If the repetition resembles the original statement, our echoic memories will identify the repeated statement as familiar.


Employing the model used by George Sperling, and utilizing partial report and whole report experiments, researchers have discovered that the auditory sensory store can retain memories for a maximum of 4 seconds (Darwin, Turvey & Crowder, 1972).

However, the duration of the echo that exists following the presentation of the hearing signal seems to be a point of debate. While Julesz and Guttman have implied that it may be a second or even less, Johnson and Eriksen have indicated that it can take up to 10 seconds (Eriksen & Johnson, 1964).

In 1974, Graham Hitch and Alan Baddeley proposed a model of human memory that has a phonological loop which attends in two ways to auditory stimuli (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2009). One section of the phonological storage contains the words we hear.

The other section comprises a sub-vocal process of rehearsal that refreshes the original memory trace by utilizing the individual’s inner voice. This model, nonetheless, could not adequately describe the relationship between the initial auditory input and the subsequent memory process.

Nelson Cowan, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, attempted to address this issue by introducing a short-term memory model that implies the existence of a pre-attentive sensory system which can retain a huge amount of accurate information for a brief period (Glass, Sachse & Suchodoletz, 2008).

This system supposedly comprises an initial 200 to 400ms input phase followed by an information transferring phase. During the second phase, the information enters a more long-term memory store in order to be incorporated into working memory.

Methods for Testing

Whole Reporting and Partial Reporting

George Sperling’s research on iconic memory in the 1960s subsequently inspired other researchers to test the same phenomenon utilizing similar means in the auditory domain (Darwin, Turvey & Crowder, 1972). For instance, the participants in Sperling’s experiments had to repeat the letters that they saw.

Likewise, the subjects in the echoic memory experiments had to repeat sequences of syllables, words, or tones that they heard. Just as with iconic memory experiments, performance on partial reporting seemed superior to that on whole reporting. Furthermore, the length of the interstimulus interval seemed to be inversely related to the ability to recall.

ABRM (Auditory Backward Recognition Masking)

ABRM involves presenting a brief target stimulus to the subjects, and then, following a brief interval, presenting the mask [a second stimulus] (Bjork & Bjork, 1996). The interstimulus interval’s length manipulates the length of the duration wherein the auditory information is available.

Performance seems to improve as the interstimulus interval is raised to 250ms. While the mask does not seem to inhibit the procuring of information from the stimulus, it does seem to interfere with further processing.

Mismatch Negativity

The more objective and independent mismatch negativity tasks utilize electroencephalography to record alterations in activation in the brain (Näätänen & Escera, 2000).

Although these do not demand focused attention, they can measure auditory sensory memory.

Furthermore, mismatch negativity tasks can register the elements of the event-related potentials of brain activity evoked 150-200ms following an auditory stimulus.

This infrequent and deviant stimulus is presented among the standard stimuli, thereby enabling the comparison of the deviant stimulus with a memory trace (Sabri, Kareken, Dzemidzic, Lowe & Melara, 2004).

Neurology related to Iconic Memory

Echoic memory involves several distinct brain regions on account of its various processes. Most of the related brain areas are in the prefrontal cortex which contains the executive control and deals with the direction of attention (Bjork & Bjork, 1996).

The rehearsal system and the phonological store seem to be a left-hemisphere system with increased brain activity (Kwon, Reiss & Menon, 2002). Moreover, Broca’s area in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is responsible for the articulatory process and verbal rehearsal. While the dorsal premotor cortex is associated with rhythmic organization, the localization of spatial objects is associated with the posterior parietal cortex.

Finally, the superior temporal gyrus and the inferior temporal gyrus too, seem to play a vital role in echoic memory (Schonwiesner, Novitski, Pakarinen, Carlson, Tervaniemi & Naatanen, 2007).

Echoic Memory and Age

Increased activation inside the neural structures overtime implies that age may be positively correlated with the ability to process auditory sensory information (Kwon, Reiss & Menon, 2002).

As mismatch negativity research suggests, such cognitive and developmental growth is likely to occur until adulthood, before experiencing a decline in old age (Glass, Sachse & Suchodoletz, 2008). One study suggests that the duration of auditory memory rises significantly, from 500 to 5000ms, between 2 and 6 years of age.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

How to reference this article:

Prera, A (2021, March 16). Echoic memory. Simply Psychology.

APA Style References

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Strous, R. D., Cowan, N., Ritter, W., & Javitt, D. C. (1995). Auditory sensory (" echoic") memory dysfunction in schizophrenia. The American journal of psychiatry.

How to reference this article:

Prera, A (2021, March 16). Echoic memory. Simply Psychology.

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