How many times have you asked somebody to repeat themselves only to realize that you already knew what they are going to say before they even finish? Ever wondered why this happens? As sorcerous as it sounds, there is a scientific explanation behind this phenomenon, deeply rooted in a type of memory called echoic memory. So what happens is your echoic memory hears and temporarily stores what the other person had just said, even when you weren’t actively listening to them.
As interesting as echoic memory seems, it also carries a significant role in everyday life. From our ability to learn new vocabulary words and understand verbal communication to enjoying music and interpreting non-verbal sounds, everything involves echoic memory at some point. Let’s understand what echoic memory is with some real-time examples, how the brain produces it, and how to improve it.
All About Echoic Memory: How It Works
It goes without saying how important memory is for daily life. In the simplest words, memory describes the cognitive process that involves storing and retrieving information as necessary. Experts break down memory into three different types, such as short-term memory, long-term memory, and sensory memory. 
While the terms short- and long-term memory seem self-explanatory, sensory memory is what most people don’t know about. This type of memory refers to information that the brain derives from the external world and stores for future use. As suggested by the name, sensory memory involves five types of information based on the five senses, sound, sight, smell, touch, and taste. Of these five senses, the sound is most commonly linked with sensory memory and is termed echoic memory.
What makes echoic memory so unique? This type of memory can store a perfect version of the sound you may have heard for a few seconds only, such as a dog barking, a car honking, or a person speaking. This memory works in the present as you hear a sound live. These sounds may include anything, even a pen clicking or a balloon popping.
So how does echoic memory work? As soon as you hear a sound in your surroundings, the auditory nerve present inside your ear sends it into the brain in the form of electrical signals. As these auditory signals enter the brain, the process of echoic memory formation begins.  The brain quickly decodes and processes the information and stores it as auditory data in the primary auditory complex (PAC) area. Each hemisphere of the brain has a separate PAC and stores echoic memory from the opposite ear. For instance, if you hear a sound through your right ear, its echoic memory will be stored in the left PAC.
Keep in mind that echoic memory is short-lived, typically lasting a few seconds only.  However, these few seconds are usually enough to help you quickly recall a sound you just heard. Later on, this sound moves into the short-term memory area, where the brain assigns meaning to it.
Echoic Memory in Daily Life: Real-Time Examples
Interestingly, the process of acquiring echoic memory is automatic, meaning that the auditory information enters your echoic memory bank even if you are not conscious.  Your mind constantly forms these memories as you go through the day.
Still not sure what echoic memory is and how you use it in daily life? The following examples can help you make sense of it.
Conversing with another person
Spoken language is a common example of how we form echoic memories every day. When a person around you talks, your echoic memory retains all syllables. The brain then connects these syllables with each other to recognize words. These words keep getting stored in the echoic memory, allowing the brain to connect them and understand a full sentence.
Listening to music
Don’t you just love when your favorite song comes on the radio and makes your drive happier? You have echoic memory to thank for it. As you listen to music, the echoic memory recalls the previous note, connecting it to the next one. This constant connection allows the brain to recognize the notes as a song.
Remember the time when you were busy typing something on your computer, and your co-worker stopped by to share the biggest gossip of the day? You did not fully hear what they said but somehow knew the gossip even before they finished repeating themselves. How? Here is when echoic memory comes into play. Whatever your co-worker repeated sounded familiar because even though you weren’t paying attention, your echoic memory had heard them the first time they communicated.
Unveiling Your Echoic Memory: The Role of Active Listening
Want to check your echoic memory?  Here is a quick memory exercise to test it:
- Take a stopwatch and set a timer for one minute. Get comfortable and disable any noise-cancellation devices around you.
- Start the timer and close your eyes, just quietly listening to your surroundings.
- As soon as the alarm rings, spend another minute recalling all nonverbal sounds you heard during the last minute and make a list of them.
- Think hard about which of the sounds mentioned on the list you can recall hearing before you turn on the timer and close your eyes.
You will be surprised to know that many of the sounds mentioned on the list are the ones you have already been listening to before this little exercise. These sounds, such as the sounds of your breathing, were probably there all the time, and your echoic memory was recording them, but your mind chose to buffer them, so you did not pay much attention to them. So, what can you do to increase your awareness of your echoic memory? The answer is active listening.
Active listening is a great way to enhance your awareness of echoic memory. For instance, consider concentrating on the nonverbal sounds around you as you go for a morning walk or pay attention to all sorts of sounds, such as text dings, ringtones, or other electronic sounds that you otherwise ignore, as you sip on your hot beverage in a coffee house. After these sessions, don’t forget to log all the sounds you remember in your memory journal.
Can We Lose Our Echoic Memories?
If you ever feel like struggling to recognize sounds, it might be because of a problem with your overall memory. Most memory loss conditions do not typically affect the echoic memory, but they can interfere with your ability to identify familiar sounds, such as the sound of a family member.  It is important to seek help for memory loss as soon as you notice any issues with it. Some memory loss is normal due to aging; however, extreme losses may indicate a more serious issue. The sooner you get help, the more options you may have for treatment.
Sometimes, you may notice forgetting sounds that you were previously able to recall without any issues. For example, you may struggle to recognize your favorite songs, or the voice of a loved one may suddenly seem unfamiliar. Your long-term memory has plenty of sounds that you may keep forgetting or find hard to recognize.
The first step to tackling such a situation is to get help for your memory loss from a psychologist. A psychologist can assess your case in detail and use multiple memory tests to determine the cause of your memory loss. These tests may also help the psychologist pinpoint the type of memory affected and the extent of the damage. Once the tests are complete, you will be given a diagnosis and potential treatment options to treat it.
The countless everyday sounds you hear as you go by your day are what constitute your echoic memory. This short-term memory only lasts for two to four seconds before the brain starts processing it. Despite the short duration, echoic memory helps keep the information safe in the brain even after the sound that triggered it has ended. All of us naturally have echoic memory, but factors like age, hearing loss, and neurological disorders can affect how well we can recall sounds. While some of this decline is natural with age, any severe memory-related problems must be reported to a doctor to rule out any underlying health issues.