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What is Episodic Memory?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Episodic memory is a form of memory which allows someone to recall events of personal importance. Together with semantic memory, it makes up the declarative section of the long term memory, the part of memory concerned with facts and information, sort of like an encyclopedia in the brain. The other type of long term memory is procedural memory, which is the how-to section of the brain.

The primary contrast between episodic and semantic memory is that episodic memories are memories which can be explicitly described and stated, while semantic memory is concerned with concepts and ideas. For example, the concept of a table is housed in the semantic memory, but when someone describes his or her kitchen table, this is an episodic memory. Procedural memory can also interact with declarative memory, as for example when someone drives a car, using procedural memory to remember how to drive, semantic memory to define a car, and episodic memory to recall specific driving experiences.

Episodic memories can pertain to general or specific events, such as what it feels like to ride a train, or a specific event which occurred on a train. It can also include facts, such as the names of world leaders, and so-called “flashbulb” memories, which are formed during periods of intense emotion. A classic example of a flashbulb memory from the 20th century is the assassination of President Kennedy, an event which was vividly remembered by people who were alive at the time.

It only takes one exposure to form an episodic memory, which is probably something which evolved early in human evolution, to teach people to avoid making potentially deadly mistakes. For example, someone who almost drowns as a child will often develop a fear of water in response to this single experience. People engage in episodic learning every day, but children often provide very striking examples of episodic learning, since they are exploring a world which is primarily unfamiliar to them, and hence they constantly have new experiences which are filed away in the episodic memory.

This area of the long term memory is a critical part of identity. People are shaped by the events they participate in and interact with, and loss of episodic memories can cause people to experience confusion or distress, as they lack a context for their identities. Some researchers have suggested that episodic memory sometimes turns into semantic memory over time, with the brain lumping a family of similar experiences together to create a semantic concept. For example, distinct memories of various burns may be bundled together into the semantic memory to provide a concept of “hot,” along with information about which kinds of things tend to be hot.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon150583 — On Feb 08, 2011

I have been diagnosed a episodic memory problem and I'm just trying understand it but I'm finding it difficult. can anyone help please?

By BambooForest — On Oct 09, 2010

@stolaf23, exactly, I was thinking of mnemonic devices, but couldn't remember the term. My professor also used those several times, often incorporating our visual memories as well as our auditory memories. Another good example I still remember is when she taught us parts of the brain. One of the parts associated with learning was the hippocampus, so she drew a hippo wearing a graduation outfit on the board, helping us to remember both the words and a visual idea of what they meant.

By stolaf23 — On Oct 09, 2010

@BambooForest, your story is a great example of mnemonic devices. The reason things like acronyms, silly songs, and charts are so helpful for students, especially young students, is that they give them a reference point for information they might otherwise know nothing about.

By BambooForest — On Oct 09, 2010

I once learned in a psychology class that our long term working memory is actually limitless; the idea that we might "fill up" our brains is impossible. The important thing you must do to recall things, especially if you are working to generally improve memory, is to make sure you "cloak" your memories. Cloaking memories is the act of associating what you learn with something you already know to help you remember, or try to remember two related memories at one time. In class, my professor illustrated this by drawing a stick figure on the board, saying that was "naked" memory, and then drawing clothing on the stick figure to "clothe" it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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