What Is Echoic Memory?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 28, 2021
2 min read

Echoic memory is the ultra-short-term memory for things you hear. The brain maintains many types of memories. Echoic memory is part of sensory memory, storing information from the sounds you hear.

When your ears hear a sound, they transmit it to the brain where echoic memory stores it for about 4 minutes. In that short time, the mind makes and stores a record of that sound so that you can recall it after the actual sound has stopped. This process is ongoing, whether you are aware of the sounds or not.

Storage or deletion. Within the short time the memory lasts, the brain decides to discard or store the echoic memory. If the sound has essential context, the brain will move the information to short-term memory. Here, it will stay for about 20 minutes before being deleted or moved to the long-term memory part of the brain. The length of stay of any echoic memory in long-term memory depends on how often you replay that information in your mind.

Duration of echoic memory. Your echoic memory operates on an ultra-short-term basis, so it lasts briefly. It depends on the specific situation. Because echoic memory is brief, your brain can record many echoic memories throughout the day.

Sometimes, two different pieces of audio information will overlap and reach your ears at the same time. The brain automatically recognizes the two separate pieces of information or a change in information. It relies on the echoic memory to hold these two pieces of information simultaneously.

Your echoic memory can sometimes lose its functionality. The impairment results from a medical condition or event that tampers with the memory. When the impairment is in children, it causes problems with speech, and communication difficulties are present.

Some medical conditions that contribute to echoic memory loss include:

Impairment of the echoic memory affects your quality of daily life. If you notice that you have difficulties remembering sounds you once could easily remember, seek medical help. The doctor will do tests to determine if you have any memory impairments. Treatment options are available for each specific diagnosis.