How does memory work?

Memory is the ability to take in information, store it, and recall it at a later time. In psychology, memory is broken into three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.


Stages of memory: The three stages of memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Problems can occur at any stage of the process.

The Memory Process

  1. Encoding (or registration): the process of receiving, processing, and combining information. Encoding allows information from the outside world to reach our senses in the forms of chemical and physical stimuli. In this first stage we must change the information so that we may put the memory into the encoding process.
  2. Storage: the creation of a permanent record of the encoded information. Storage is the second memory stage or process in which we maintain information over periods of time.
  3. Retrieval (or recall, or recognition): the calling back of stored information in response to some cue for use in a process or activity. The third process is the retrieval of information that we have stored. We must locate it and return it to our consciousness. Some retrieval attempts may be effortless due to the type of information.

Problems can occur at any stage of the process, leading to anything from forgetfulness to amnesia. Distraction can prevent us from encoding information initially; information might not be stored properly, or might not move from short-term to long-term storage; and/or we might not be able to retrieve the information once it’s stored.

Take a look at this video on how memory is stored: