The Six Types of Encoding (Psychology of Memory)

types of encoding in psychology

Encoding is the process of transforming external information into a format we can store in our memories. It’s our brains’ process for remembering and recalling knowledge later.

As the first step of developing memory, psychology recognizes encoding as an integral process. It encompasses perceiving environmental stimulus and transforming it into something that can be saved in our brains for future use.

There are at least six types of encoding, introduced below.

Type of EncodingDescription
Visual encodingInvolves using visual cues to store information and acoustic means using sound or language to store information.
Semantic encodingInvolves using meaning or context to store information. We store the meaning along with the term, date, or concept to make it more memorable.
Acoustic encodingInvolves using auditory cues to store information. Includes linking sound characteristics such as pitch and frequency to the data being stored.
Elaborative encodingInvolves connecting new information to prior knowledge to remember it. Contrasted to rote learning where facts are remembered in isolation.
Tactile encodingRefers to using physical sensations and touch to store information.
Organizational encodingInvolves organizing information into groups or categories. 

Overall, when we encounter new information, the most important step is encoding it. For this, we use different types of encoding techniques. By understanding and mastering these techniques, we can improve our memories. 

Encoding Definition (Psychology)

Encoding means converting information from a source into a form that can be stored in memory. During this process, sensory information is transformed into mental representations that are used to recall memories later. 

It involves attention to selective perception, organization of incoming perceptual material, and elaboration strategies such as visual imagery, organization, and chunking. 

Durwin and Reese-Weber (2016) define encoding simply as:

“…the process by which information or stimuli enter our memory” (p. 192).

Encoding serves as the foundation for storing and retrieving memories within our long-term memory.

As stated by Kumar (2020), encoding:

“…allows the perceived item of interest to be converted into a construct that can be stored within the brain, and then recalled later from short-term or long-term memory” (p. 302).

For example, when we encounter a new word, the process of encoding is what allows us to remember it by creating a mental representation of that word. 

Simply, encoding is the process of transforming sensory information into a format that we can store in our memories. 

Four Main Types of Encoding

Psychology recognizes four main encoding types for forming memories: visual, acoustic, semantic, and elaborative. Each type is based on how the information is processed and stored in our brains. 

Here is a detailed description of each type: 

1. Visual Encoding

Visual encoding is a type of memory encoding that involves using visual cues to store information.

For example, it can involve mentally picturing an object or scene or recalling patterns and shapes in order to remember something (Markman & Ross, 2006).

Visual data is temporarily held in the visuospatial sketchpad, which links to our central executive—the crucial working memory area.

However, before being securely saved into long-term memory, this information first resides in iconic memory for a short period.

An example of visual encoding would be when you attempt to remember a list of items. You could picture them laid out on a table in a certain way so that you can recall the items easier when needed. 

Visual encoding also occurs when remembering something from a book or article with illustrations; the vivid images help us better recall the content (Markman & Ross, 2006).

Another example of visual encoding would be watching a video; we use the visuals within the video to help us remember what we have seen.

So, when we use visual encoding, we take in information through sight and then store it visually in our memories. 

2. Acoustic Encoding

Acoustic encoding is a type of memory encoding that involves using auditory cues to store information.

It includes linking sound characteristics such as pitch and frequency to the data that is being stored to remember it better (Wickens & Eckler, 1968).

Acoustic encoding comprises the phonological loop, a process that consists of two steps. First, auditory data enters your brain and remains there for up to two seconds. Then it must be rehearsed to convert it into long-term memory.

An example of acoustic encoding would be learning a language; we use sounds to help us remember vocabulary words or sentence structures. 

Another great example of acoustic encoding could be memorizing a song; these lyrics and melodies help us recall the words sung. 

Additionally, when studying for tests, many people recite facts or equations aloud to store them in their memory better; it is also an example of acoustic encoding.

Simply, acoustic encoding occurs when we use sound to remember information (Wickens & Eckler, 1968). 

3. Semantic Encoding

Semantic encoding is a type of memory encoding that involves using the meaning of something to store information.

It relies on understanding concepts and ideas to remember them rather than relying on cues such as visuals or sounds (Kellogg, 2015).

Semantic encoding is more memorable in comparison to non-semantic or shallow encoding. Therefore, attaching emotions while committing information to your hippocampus is beneficial to make the process much more vivid and lasting.

An example of this could be when we try to remember a definition; we link the concept with its meaning to recall it later. 

Another real-life example of semantic encoding would be recalling a story; we use the plot points, characters, events, and themes to help us remember what happened. 

Finally, remembering facts such as dates or numbers also requires semantic encoding; these facts are linked with meaning for us to recall them better.

So, when we use semantic encoding, we take in information through understanding and then store it in our memories (Kellogg, 2015).

4. Elaborative Encoding

Elaborative encoding is a type of memory encoding that involves connecting new information to prior knowledge to remember it.

It is based on the idea that we remember things better if we relate them to what we already know (Bradshaw & Anderson, 1982).

Memory is made up of both original and pre-existing information about a particular topic. It means our capacity to remember something depends on how we connect it to previous knowledge. 

Elaborative encoding has been demonstrated as an effective approach for improving long-term memory, indicating its importance in the context of memorization techniques (Bradshaw & Anderson, 1982).

An example of this could be when studying for a test; you link the concepts and information being studied to facts or ideas you already know to remember them better. 

Another way elaborative encoding can be used is when looking up a definition. Understanding how this word relates to other words or ideas can help us remember the definition more easily. 

Another example of elaborative encoding would be recalling a speech; linking the points from the speech with facts and opinions can make it easier for us to recall the speech later on.

Simply, elaborative encoding is when we link new information to existing knowledge to remember it better.

 Encoding Strategy: The Encoding Specificity Principle

The encoding specificity principle states that we recall information best if we are recalling it in the same context that we encoded it. For example, a student studying a foreign language in their bedroom may be better able to recall that language when they return to the bedroom than in another environment.

Tactile and Organizational Encoding

While acoustic, semantic, and elaborative encoding relies more on the brain’s processing system, tactile and organizational encoding typically involve physical action or movement.

These ways of encoding memories can be used to remember physical objects or directions. 

Here is a detailed explanation of active and organizational encoding:

1. Tactile Encoding

Tactile encoding is a type of memory encoding that involves using physical sensations to remember information (Kumar, 2020).

It relies on connecting physical sensations, such as the feeling of an object in hand or touching a surface, to things one wants to remember. 

Tactile encoding can involve anything from recollecting the taste of a certain fruit to embracing your cat or even remembering how it felt when you had your first kiss. Odors also play an important role in tactile encoding.

An example of tactile encoding could be when you are trying to recall a password; by linking the letters or numbers with how it felt to enter them on the keyboard, you can help yourself remember it more easily. 

Another example would be when you are learning a new skill; associating tactile sensations like feeling the pressure of your foot against the pedals or gripping the steering wheel tightly can help engrain this information into your memory. 

Another use for tactile encoding could be when reading through notes from a lecture; touching and feeling each page as you go along helps us to recall better and retain this information.

So, tactile encoding is an effective way to remember information through physical sensations (Kumar, 2020).

2. Organizational Encoding

Organizational encoding is a type of memory encoding that involves arranging information into categories or hierarchies to facilitate recollection (Pelham & Boninger, 2020).

It is based on the idea that our brains can more easily remember information organized in a way that makes sense. 

Organizational encoding involves breaking down and organizing the material into meaningful segments for easier memorization and retrieval. 

By recognizing and acknowledging the correlations between individual pieces of data, this approach provides an invaluable organization through classifying, noting down, and aggregating information.

An example of organizational encoding could be when you are studying for a test; by breaking down the material into subsections, such as chapters or sections, you can better organize it in your head. 

Another example could be when memorizing a list of items; you can make memorization easier by organizing them in a logical order, like alphabetically or by size.

So, organizational encoding is an effective way to remember information by breaking it down and organizing it in a way that makes sense (Pelham & Boninger, 2020).

Conclusion

Turning external sensory data into mental representations that can be stored and recalled later is essential to honing our memory. This process, known as encoding, helps us remember more effectively and recall information more accurately.

Psychology recognizes four main types of encoding: visual, acoustic, semantic, and elaborative, each with its own unique way of processing and storing information. 

Additionally, there are two more types of encoding – tactile and organizational, which involve physical sensations and organizing information into categories or hierarchies, respectively. 

Understanding and mastering these encoding techniques can improve our memory retention and recall abilities. 

Overall, encoding is the foundation for storing and retrieving memories in our long-term memory. As a result, it plays a significant role in our daily lives, from learning new skills to recalling important information.

References

Bradshaw, G. L., & Anderson, J. R. (1982). Elaborative encoding as an explanation of levels of processing. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior21(2), 165–174. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0022-5371(82)90531-x

Durwin, C. C., & Reese-Weber, M. (2016). Edpsych modules. New York: Sage.

Kellogg, R. T. (2015). Fundamentals of cognitive psychology. SAGE Publications.

Kumar, M. (2020). Psychology of learning and learners. New York: Sankalp Publication.

Markman, A., & Ross, B. H. (2006). The psychology of learning and motivation. Elsevier.

Pelham, B., & Boninger, D. (2020). Introductory psychology in modules. London: Routledge. Wickens, D. D., & Eckler, G. R. (1968). Semantic as opposed to acoustic encoding in STM. Psychonomic Science12(2), 63–63. https://doi.org/10.3758/bf03331193

Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

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Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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