Researchers have long studied the way human memory works to determine how memories are stored both short and long term and the functions and purpose of memory storage. When people think about memory, it is common for them to first think about how their own experiences in life get stored in their brains and how these reminders of the past affect their lives in the future. This is what researchers call episodic memory, or specific and personal memories that help a person understand the world when they are reminded of them. Examples of this would be the memory of a first date with your romantic partner, remembering the color of your shirt on the first day of school, or being reminded of something your mother or father had always told you, etc. These memories are ones that can help you to remember how you’ve become the person you are, and can instill feelings of nostalgia and other feelings, as they are more tied to the emotional centers of our brain.
The less emotional and more logical side of memory is called semantic memory, or general knowledge about how the world works that we have developed over time . Examples of semantic memory include: knowing how to tie your shoes, knowing how to communicate in a particular language, or being able to identify colors or shapes. Semantic memories are things that we learn, remember, and use throughout the rest of our lives without having to think about it. These are things that we, as humans, can share with one another and are not related to specific experiences of each individual person, but more culturally connected based on where we grew up and how we were raised. It is thought that semantic memory is often developed from episodic memories; meaning that learning to do something like tying your shoes may begin as a memory tied to a particular experience, but eventually becomes stored as a long-term memory and becomes something you just know how to do without thinking about it. Language and communicating are largely connected to our semantic memory storage and help us to navigate the world and connect with others.
Semantic memory is critical to human beings, because its primary function is helping a person navigate the world day to day. Semantic memory is where a lot of our knowledge of safety and everyday functions live, and without the ability to do these things automatically, people can struggle to keep themselves healthy and safe as a result. There are some conditions that present as a deterioration of a person’s long-term memory and can impact their ability to complete basic, daily functions. Children who struggle with developing semantic memories may experience learning disorders or other cognitive difficulties that impact their ability to demonstrate understanding of what they’re learning. Older adults can also begin to struggle with semantic memory recognition when they are experiencing dementia or another degenerative diseases that impact memory storage, and can cause adults to struggle with remembering how to do a variety of every day tasks.
While episodic memories are stored as a result of things happening in a person’s life, semantic memories are stored after consistent repetition and practice of certain actions or skills. This could be internalized visually, or by seeing the same thing repeatedly, acoustically or by hearing things over and over, or by connecting meaning to something in some other way. When someone struggles with semantic memory storage, it is important for them to being to practice the use of cognitive strategies to help them to strengthen this part of their brain! Strategies to do this involve tasks like practicing writing things down, saying them out loud, or practicing certain things over and over until they are mastered without having to think about it much. Everyone has different ways of retaining information and storing it to memory based on their own cognitive strengths; for example, someone may have more visual recognition strength, while someone else may have more acoustic or auditory recognition ability. Finding the best way for you to personally store semantic memory can help you to begin to develop strategies to retain important information that is critical to your life. If you or a loved one are struggling with this, it may be necessary to get assistance from a mental health or medical professional to help determine the cause and any strategies that can help improve your semantic memory retrieval and help to improve your day to day life!
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events