We most often ignore the effects of our memory in our behaviors, thoughts, actions or words. Past experiences unconsciously influence our percpetions, thoughts, actions and thus build a hidden world of consicous memory.

The definition

Sensory memory, or perceptual memory, is the memory related to the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). It identifies perceptions and functions without the individual being aware of them.

This memory allows, for example, to retain sounds, images (faces, places…), smells, without realizing it.

The duration of the sensory memory is very short, ranging from a few hundred milliseconds to a maximum of one or two seconds.

According to the memory model proposed by R. Atkinson and R. Shiffrin in 1968, the memorization process takes place in three main stages. More precisely, for information to be permanently stored in memory, it must go through three types of interactive memories 

  1. sensory memory (MS)
  2. short-term memory (MCT)
  3. long-term memory (LTM)

Sensory memory is therefore the initial step in processing the information to be memorized. It is, in a way, the one that opens the door to memory.

The role of sensory memory

The lifetime of information in sensory memory is very short. It is in the order of half a second to two seconds. Indeed, the role of sensory memory is to retain information just as long as it takes for us to select the important elements from the continuous flow of information that our senses provide us.

Also, this filtering, which consists in selecting and then transferring relevant information from sensory memory to short-term memory, allows, among other things, pattern recognition. It is a matter of identifying an element based on the information stored in long-term memory. In practice, this means, for example, recognizing a face in a crowd.

Sensory memory is therefore an interface between the intensive flow of external stimuli that continuously reaches us and the information already stored in memory. Thus, by blocking access to irrelevant information, sensory memory plays an essential role. In addition, given the dizzying amount of information transmitted by our senses, sensory memory must be emptied very quickly. Otherwise, it would very quickly become overwhelmed with information and ineffective.