Different Types of Memories

The 4 Main Types of Memory and the Function of Each

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Memory is the ability to store and retrieve information when people need it. The four general types of memories are sensory memory, short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory. Long-term memory can be further categorized as either implicit (unconscious) or explicit (conscious).

Together, these types of memory make us who we are as individuals, yet we don’t put a lot of thought into how memory works. It’s a phenomenon that involves several processes and can be split into different types, each of which plays an important role in the retention and recall of information.

4 Main Types of Memories 

For years, researchers and experts have debated the classification of memories. Many experts agree that there are four main categories of memory. All other types of memory tend to fall under these four major categories. 

Memory is sometimes also classified into stages and processes. People who classify memory into only two distinctive types, implicit and explicit memory, view that other types of memories like sensory, short-term, and long-term memories aren’t types of memory but stages of memory.

Sensory Memory 

Sensory memory allows you to remember sensory information after the stimulation has ended. Researchers who classify memory more as stages than types believe that all other memories begin with the formation of sensory memories. Typically your sensory memory only holds onto information for brief periods. Remembering the sensation of a person’s touch or a sound you heard in passing is sensory memory.

When a sensory experience keeps recurring, and you start to attach other memories to it, the sensory experience stops living in your sensory memory. It might move to your short-term memory or more permanently to your long-term memory.

There are three types of sensory memory: iconic, which is obtained through sight; echoic, which is auditory; and haptic, which is through touch.

Short-term Memory 

As the name implies, short-term memory allows you to recall specific information about anything for a brief period. Short-term memory is not as fleeting as sensory memory, but it’s also not as permanent as long-term memory. Short-term memory is also known as primary or active memory.

Research estimates that short-term memories only last for about 30 seconds. When you read a line in a book or a string of numbers that you have to recall, that’s your short-term memory at work.

You can keep information in your short-term memory by rehearsing the information. For example, if you need to recall a string of numbers, you might keep repeating them to yourself until you input them. However, if you are asked to recall those numbers about 10 minutes after inputting them, you’d most likely be unable to. 

Working Memory

Working memory is a type of memory that involves the immediate and small amount of information that a person actively uses as they perform cognitive tasks.

While some experts view working memory as a fourth distinct type of memory, working memory can fall under the classification of short-term memory and, in many cases, is even used interchangeably. 

Long-term Memory

We store a vast majority of our memories in our long-term memory. Any memory we can still recall after 30 seconds could classify as long-term memory. These memories range in significance—from recalling the name of a friendly face at your favorite coffee shop to important bits of information like a close friend’s birthday or your home address.

There is no limit to how much our long-term memory can hold and for how long. We can further split long-term memory into two main categories: explicit and implicit long-term memory.

Explicit Long-term Memory 

Explicit long-term memories are memories we consciously and deliberately took time to form and recall. Explicit memory holds information such as your best friend’s birthday or your phone number. It often includes major milestones in your life, such as childhood events, graduation dates, or academic work you learned in school.

In general, explicit memories can be episodic or semantic.

  • Episodic memories are formed from particular episodes in your life. Examples of episodic memory include the first time you rode a bike or your first day at school.
  • Semantic memories are general facts and bits of information you absorbed over the years. For instance, when you recall a random fact while filling in a crossword puzzle, you pull it from your semantic memory.

Conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease heavily affect explicit memories.

Implicit Long-term Memory 

We are not as deliberate with forming implicit memories as we are with explicit ones. Implicit memories form unconsciously and might affect the way a person thinks and behaves.

Implicit memory often comes into play when we are learning motor skills like walking or riding a bike. If you learned how to ride a bike when you were 10 and only ever pick it up again when you are 20, implicit memory helps you remember how to ride it. 

We can retrieve long-term memories a few different ways. The three types of memory retrieval are recall, recognition, and relearning.

Why Do We Have Different Types of Memory?

Each different type of memory we have is important, and they all have various functions. Your short-term memory allows you to process and understand the information in an instant. When you read a paragraph in a book and understand it, that’s your short-term memory at work. 

Your most treasured and important memories are held in your long-term memory. Your long-term memory facilitates how to walk, talk, ride a bike, and engage in daily activities. It also allows you to recall important dates and facts.

In your day-to-day activities, you are bound to find yourself relying on your long-term memory the most. From waking up and brushing your teeth to getting on the right bus to commute to work, recalling all of these steps is facilitated by your long-term memory. 

How These Types of Memories Are Formed

Memories are made in three distinct stages. It starts with encoding. Encoding is the way external stimuli and information make their way into your brain. This could occur through any of your five senses.

The next stage is storage, where the information we take in is stored either briefly, like with sensory and short term memory, or more permanently, like with long term memory.

The final stage is recall. Recall is our ability to retrieve the memory we’ve made from where it is stored. These processes are also how sensory memory might be turned into short-term memory or short-term memory into long-term memory. 

How to Improve Your Memory 

It’s commonplace to hear people complain about having poor memory. When we try to recall information we have encoded and stored, and we can’t, then our memory has failed us.

The good news is that it is possible to improve your memory and make the process of encoding, storing, and recalling information more seamless. Here are a couple of tips that could help you improve your memory

  • Take care of your body. If you take care of your body by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep, you improve your brain health which helps you process and recall memories better. 
  • Exercise your mind. There are several activities and puzzles you could do to give your mind a great workout. 
  • Take advantage of calendars and planners. Clear up memory space in your brain by using calendars and planners to remember the little things like shopping lists and meeting times. 
  • Stay mentally active. Reading, writing, and constantly learning help you remain mentally active, which can improve your memory.
6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.