What Are the 5 Stages of Memory?

person writing in an agenda book

Zero Creatives / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Are the 5 Stages of Memory?

What Is Memory?

Some researchers break down memory into a process that includes five main stages: encoding, storage, recall, retrieval, and forgetting.

Each stage can be affected by different factors, which can influence how well information is remembered. Below, let's take a closer look at each of the stages of memory.

Stage 1: Encoding

Encoding is the first stage of memory, and it refers to the process of converting information into a format that can be stored in our memory:

  • Encoding occurs when we pay attention to information. For example, if you are trying to remember a list of groceries, you will need to pay attention to the items on the list in order to encode them into your memory.
  • Information is encoded into a format that can be stored in our memory. For example, when we see a new word, we often encode it by saying the word out loud or writing it down.
  • Encoding allows us to access information at a later time. For example, if you encode a list of groceries, you will be able to retrieve that information when you need it.
  • The process of encoding can be affected by external factors, such as stress or fatigue. For example, if you are trying to encode a list of groceries but you are feeling stressed, you may have difficulty remembering the items on the list.
  • Encoding is a necessary step in the formation of long-term memories. For example, if you want to remember a list of groceries for more than just a few minutes, you will need to encode that information into your long-term memory.

Stage 2: Storage

Storage refers to the process of keeping the information in our memory so that we can access it at a later time. When we store information in our memory, we are essentially creating a mental representation of that information. This mental representation can be in the form of a picture, a sound, or a feeling.

  • There are two types of storage: short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM).These two types of storage serve different purposes.
  • STM is where information is stored for only a short period of time. For example, if you are trying to remember a phone number, you will only be able to keep that information in your STM for a short period before it is forgotten.
  • LTM is where information is stored for a longer period of time.For example, if you encode a recipe into your LTM, you will be able to retrieve that information weeks or even months later.
  • The capacity of STM is limited, but the capacity of LTM is virtually unlimited. For example, you can only remember a few items from a grocery list if you store that information in your STM, but you can store an unlimited number of items in your LTM.
  • Information can be transferred from STM to LTM, but the process is not always perfect.For example, you may try to remember a grocery list by repeating the items to yourself, but you may still forget some of the items on the list.

Stage 3: Recall

Recall refers to the process of retrieving information from our memory. In order to recall information from our memory, we must first have encoded and stored that information in our memory.

  • Recall is the process of retrieving information from our memory stores. When we recall information, we "re-experience" the event originally encoded in our memory system.
  • There are two types of recall: free recall and cued recall. Free recall is when we remember information without any cues or prompts. Cued recall is when we remember information with the help of cues or prompts.
  • Recall can be affected by a number of factors, including the individual's mood or emotional state.

Stage 4: Retrieval

Retrieval is similar to recall: retrieval is the process of actively searching for information in our memory stores, while recall is the process of passively remembering information.

  • Retrieval is the process of accessing information from our memory. For example, if you are trying to remember the name of a person you met at a party, you will need to retrieve that information from your memory.
  • We often use retrieval cues to help us find the information we are looking for. For example, if you are trying to remember the name of a person you met at a party, you might use a unique aspect of their appearance.
  • Retrieval can be affected by factors such as worry, stress, or fatigue.For example, if you are trying to remember the name of a person you met at a party but you are feeling stressed, you may have difficulty retrieving that information.
  • The process of retrieval often begins with attention; if we are not paying attention to something, we are less likely to retrieve it from our memory.
  • Retrieval is a necessary step in the formation of long-term memories.

Stage 5: Forgetting

Forgetting refers to the inability to retrieve information from memory. There are a number of reasons why we might forget something, including failure to adequately encode the information in the first place or emotionally motivated difficulties in retrieving information when we need it.

  • Forgetting is the process of losing information from our memory. For example, if you forget the name of a person you met at a party, you have lost that information from your memory.
  • There are many reasons why we might forget something. For example, we may forget the name of a person we met at a party because we were not paying attention to it at the time.
  • There are two main types of forgetting: retroactive interference and proactive interference. Retroactive interference is when new information interferes with our ability to remember old information. Proactive interference is when old information interferes with our ability to remember new information.
  • Forgetting is a normal part of memory; it is not necessarily a sign of a problem.

Overall, memory is a complex process that involves several different stages. By understanding how each stage works, you can better understand how our memory works as a whole.

A Word From Verywell

There are a few things you can do to improve your memory. First, pay attention to what you want to remember. This will help with encoding. Second, try to create a mental image of what you want to remember. This will help with storage in your long-term memory. Finally, practice retrieval by testing yourself on what you want to remember. This will help strengthen the connections between the information in your long-term memory and your retrieval process.

11 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.
  1. Zlotnik G, Vansintjan A. Memory: An Extended DefinitionFront Psychol. 2019;10:2523. Published 2019 Nov 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02523

  2. Cheke LG. What-where-when memory and encoding strategies in healthy agingLearn Mem. 2016;23(3):121-126. Published 2016 Feb 16. doi:10.1101/lm.040840.115

  3. Popp EY, Serra MJ. Adaptive memory: Animacy enhances free recall but impairs cued recallJ Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2016;42(2):186-201. doi:10.1037/xlm0000174

  4. Bower ES, Szajer J, Murphy C. Effect of Worry Level on Recall Memory for Odors in ApoE-ε4 Carriers and Non-Carriers. J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2019 May;25(5):546-556. doi: 10.1017/S1355617719000158. Epub 2019 Apr 16. PMID: 30987686; PMCID: PMC6534430.

  5. Wheeler RL, Gabbert F. Using Self-Generated Cues to Facilitate Recall: A Narrative Review. Front Psychol. 2017 Oct 27;8:1830. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01830. PMID: 29163254; PMCID: PMC5664228.

  6. deBettencourt MT, Williams SD, Vogel EK, Awh E. Sustained Attention and Spatial Attention Distinctly Influence Long-term Memory Encoding. J Cogn Neurosci. 2021 Sep 1;33(10):2132-2148. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01748. PMID: 34496022; PMCID: PMC9045332.

  7. Brewer G, Unsworth N. Individual differences in the effects of retrieval from long-term memory. Journal of Memory and Language. 2012 Apr;66(3):407-415. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2011.12.009

  8. Ngo KWJ, Biss RK, Hasher L. Time of day effects on the use of distraction to minimise forgettingQ J Exp Psychol (Hove). 2018;71(11):2334-2341. doi:10.1177/1747021817740808

  9. Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. Forgetting. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10964/

  10. Harvard Health Publishing. 7 Common Causes of Forgetfulness.

  11. Crossley M, Lorenzetti FD, Naskar S, et al. Proactive and retroactive interference with associative memory consolidation in the snail Lymnaea is time and circuit dependentCommun Biol. 2019;2:242. Published 2019 Jun 26. doi:10.1038/s42003-019-0470-y