What Is the Function of Episodic Memory?

Erik J.J. Goserud

Episodic memory refers to the recollection of autobiographical information within the brain and, along with semantic memory, makes up the declarative memory division in the brain. Autobiographical information, as the name suggests, is any event or experience directly having to do with the self. Declarative memory is a subdivision making up one half of all memory classifications, with its counterpart being procedural memory. Procedural memory, also known as implicit memory, is learned information of the conscious and subconscious that is involved in the knowledge necessary to complete tasks.

A guitarist remembering a lesson is an example of episodic memory.
A guitarist remembering a lesson is an example of episodic memory.

An example to illustrate the difference between procedural and declarative memory is playing the guitar. In order to play a guitar, the person playing may utilize implicit knowledge of how to actually play, just like riding a bike. In the implicit realm, one can accomplish a task without referencing the experience of learning it. If a person thinks back to a specific event, however, perhaps being at a guitar lesson, he or she drawing upon episodic, hence declarative, memory.

The hippocampus in the medial temporal lobe is responsible for episodic retention of information.
The hippocampus in the medial temporal lobe is responsible for episodic retention of information.

Neurological matters are rarely specific to one region or structure in the brain, and memory is no exception. The medial temporal lobe, containing the hippocampus as well as the prefrontal cortex, are the primary structures working together to achieve an episodic retention of information. Age, pharmacological agents, and other variables may contribute to changes in this functioning. Generally speaking, however, these are the main cognitive resources for episodic memory and other declarative functions.

Cognitive neuroscience is a complex field. Few have even a vague understanding, and virtually none possess full comprehension of the complex and abstract processes involved in producing memory. For these reasons, the understanding of the brain, memory, and neurological functioning is often speculative and debatable.

In many diseases, such as Alzheimer's and autism, there has been evidence of damage to the hippocampus. This may explain why those suffering from Alzheimer's often forget significant past life events, for example, a wedding or the birth of a child. This may also play a role in autism as sufferers are cognitively compromised in a number of ways.

As the deterioration of the hippocampus and other brain structures grows severe enough, the loss of episodic memory increases in significance. If the gradual decline of one with Alzheimer's disease is studied, for example, the patient may experience brief episodic losses, such as forgetting what they ate for dinner or what they did last week. When the disease progresses, more significant episodic memory losses are sadly experienced.

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Discussion Comments


I have heard that activities like crossword puzzles and find-a-word puzzles can help improve or extend your brain function. I wonder if this applies to memory as well.

My mother is in her seventies, and she is concerned about one day losing her memories of her life's events. She does puzzles that challenge her to think in order to keep her mind sharp, and she only hopes that this will keep her brain active enough to resist senility.

I think that anything you can do to challenge yourself is good, especially at an old age. I don't know whether it will have any bearing on episodic memory, though.


In school, I noticed that repetition and studying made things stick in my brain. I began to apply this to other areas of my life.

To improve my memory, I started replaying events over and over in my head. Anytime something significant happened to me, such as when a guy I liked asked me out, I went over his words and my emotions in my mind several times.

I committed to my long-term memory the details of things that I wanted to remember forever. This has worked for me. I can recall the exact words that were said during important conversations, and I know this because I wrote them down as a reference shortly after they took place.


@kylee07drg – It is extremely sad to watch a loved one forget you. My great grandmother lived for several years with Alzheimer's, and I think it was even harder on us than on her. At least she didn't know what she was missing.

Events stored in episodic memory make a person who they are, and when they lose that, they lose their center. The only blessing is that they don't realize what is going on.

It is my hope that through scientific research and study drugs, one day a cure will be found for Alzheimer's. Science has progressed so much just in the past fifty years, and I believe it will continue to solve medical mysteries as time goes on. I just hope it happens in my lifetime.


Alzheimer's is the most tragic disease to me. My grandmother used to be super sharp, and she remembered so many things from my mother's childhood, as well as her own. During her battle with this illness, she slowly forgot everything.

At first, she lost little bits of her episodic memory. She cooked the same dinner for several nights in a row, because she couldn't remember cooking it the previous night.

When she started introducing herself to people at church whom she had known for years, we knew that something was wrong. Just a few short years after her diagnosis, she had forgotten her children and grandchildren. She died not knowing who or where she was, which is a scary way to go.

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