Sensation and Perception
Your Phonological Loop:

Have you ever found yourself dazing off while listening to someone speak?  Have you
ever noticed that when asked if you were listening you can usually repeat the last few
seconds of the person’s speech verbatim? Even if you were not listening at all and the
speaker regains your attention after they finished speaking this memory for their last few
words stays with you for a short time. This is actually an ability available to all people due
to a mechanism of human memory which called the phonological loop.

Every person’s memory can be divided up into 3 main components.  The secondary
memory or long-term memory is our store of concepts and events that happened to us in
the past, we are unlikely to easily forget the items stored in our long term memory.
Primary memory is memory for things that we are experiencing. If we do not place them
quickly into long-term memory, by associating the information with things that we already
know, the information is lost in a matter of seconds. The last type of memory is the one
responsible for recalling sensory input, and it is appropriately called sensory memory.  

Sensory memory is a memory for information that we take in through our senses and it is
actually preattentive, meaning that we do not consciously have to remember it, as it is
readily available to us for a short period of time.  In order for someone to become aware
of this sensory memory which informs us about our surroundings, the memory must be
attended to by the conscious before the sensory neurons stop firing.  

Clap your hands loudly. How long does the sound of the clap seem to persist for?  Most
people claim to hear the sound for a second or a few seconds but the actual sound, the
density waves in the air, last for only a very small fraction of a second.  This persistence
of the handclap sound is due to prolonged neural firing. In other words the sensory organs
in your ear send information to your brain about the clap even after the sound of the clap
has ended.  In fact the sound of the handclap may very well echo in your mind for several

Our retinal receptors continue to fire normal vision related information for only about 250
ms, or one quarter of a second.  Someone can be shown a grid of symbols and can still
“see” the grid and correctly report the location of any symbol on the grid, only before .25
seconds pass since the grid was removed from vision.

Information that we hear lasts for relatively longer though, about 2.5 seconds.  Our
sensory memory for auditory information results in the phonological loop, an echo for
what we have just heard that we can play back again and again as long as we pay
conscious attention to it.

The phonological loop works most effectively for speech based information and might
have evolved, in part, from the human reliance on communication and social interaction.
Test it out for yourself. It works for music, speech, or any kind of distinct auditory

It seems to most people that they are not consciously controlling the memorization of
sensory information because they are not.  When one recalls something from their
phonological loop the action of recall is a conscious action but the storage of this sound
is subconscious (It is truly physiological and not psychological, if you think of it in terms of
neuronal firing). You were not paying any attention to the speaker until after they finished
speaking, but you still have access to their words, information that was captured by your
senses in the past.

When you are in a social situation and you meet someone new they normally introduce
themselves and you normally retain their name in your sensory memory for about 2.5
seconds. Once you pay conscious attention to this name the information associated with
it is stored in primary or short term memory.  This conscious memory only lasts for about
5 to 30 seconds and is easily interrupted by incoming information, such as the small talk
that two people engage in after introducing themselves.  

When you meet someone for the first time you do not always have the time to stop and
rehearse their name. This is because you are often trying to think of something intelligent
to say. Like other information, a new acquaintance’s name can be erased from your short-
term memory after just a few seconds of conversation with them. Using their name in a
sentence after shaking their hand keeps their name active and available in your memory.
“So Jim, what line of work are you in?” Doing this also gives you time to associate the
name with information in your long-term memory (Oh, he reminds me of another friend
named Jim).

This technique works very well, because of the way our different components of memory
interact.  I often forget an acquaintance’s name right after being introduced to them and I
have found that this technique is valuable. The fact that people really like to hear their
names used in social discourse is an added benefit!

There are many ways to transfer short term memory into long term memory while under
time constraints and/or cognitive load.  Creating new techniques can be fun and helpful in
everyday life.  Facts about the world around us that we glean from scientific analysis can
give us ways to create beneficial and highly functioning behavior.  

Glean: verb
To gather or collect bit by bit.

Neuron: noun
Any of the impulse-conducting cells that constitute the nerves, spinal column or brain,
consisting of a nucleated cell body with one or more dendrites and a single axon. Also
called a nerve cell. Also spelled neurone which is chiefly British.

Verbatim: adj.
Using exactly the same words; corresponding word for word.
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