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The Different Types of Memory

On this page, I will be explaining the different types of cognitive memories that are important to know and make classifications with. It’s important to distinguish that there are different types of memories, given that we as humans have different types of memories. And in fact, different parts of the brain associate or is responsible for keeping and forming different types of memories.

So where do we start with explaining what is what? Well, let’s start by explaining memory is itself.

What is Human Memory?

Memory is the mind’s ability to store information. In more detail, our mind first encodes, then stores, and finally retrieves memories.

What is Memory Encoding?

pour over cone filter glass container with coffee
Just like paper filters only allow the best part of the coffee to pass through, our brain filters information to only allow the most important information to be remembered.

Let’s first start by understanding what encoding or “building” a memory is. Memory Encoding is when the information that we get from our senses is filtering and/or processed by the brain to be stored as information in the brain.

To understand encoding, you have to consider that we experience real-life from our senses. You’ll notice that most of the time, you won’t be able to fully recall an event in the past such that you “re-experience” it. That’s because, like I mentioned, the brain filters the information that we get from our senses, and only stores the information that the brain finds important. That’s because many of us simply cannot remember all the information our senses are exposed to.

One way the brain filters information for importance is their uniqueness or distinction. For example, let’s say you are walking to your college campus. And you do this everyday. If you were asked about the exact details of your walk a month ago, you would only be able to recall what usually happens. Which is that you did the walking. But specific details you most likely wouldn’t able to recall, like the faces of people that walked by past you.

However, let’s say that during one of your walks you saw a naked man running away from the cops. And you might have found this interesting, funny, out of the ordinary. If you were asked if you saw something weird from the past month, you would more likely be able to recall that event because of its uniqueness. The brain remembers what is out of the ordinary.

Furthermore, the sensory information that we observe may be changed into different information or processed in the brain. For example, seeing the word, “cat” written on paper is visual information. But in our mind we may silently say the word “cat” to remember it as auditory information.

What is Memory Storage?

engraved words, "In loving Memory"
Engravings don’t only take a single strike from a chisel to form. Rather, engravings take multiple strikes from a chisel to form. And memories are just the same for most people, it takes repetition to commit information to memory.

So memory storage is quite obviously information that is stored in the brain for later use or “recall”.

The first thing that happens when a memory starts to be stored in the brain, is that the brain itself physically starts changing. This is also known as “engrams” or “Memory traces”. Which makes sense, given that when a persons starts to learn something new, only a trace of that memory (for most people) is formed.

That’s why repetition, or memorization, is usually required to cement or “consolidate” a new memory.

Consolidation is like cementing a newly made neurons connections associated with a memory so that you don’t forget it so easily. You can think of the memories that the brain makes as a drop of water rolling over a rock surface. Most of the time, a single drop or two of water doesn’t do anything. But after billions of drops of water roll over the rock surface, you might start to see a path forming. I like to think of memory traces as the smallest path formed by the water, which would easily be erased. But memory consolidation is like the path becoming deeper and more substantial such that it can’t be removed so easily from the rock surface.

What is Memory Retrieval?

Memory retrieval is the process by which someone recalls the information stored in their brain.

Some may argue that memory retrieval is the most important process involving memories, given that without retrieval we wouldn’t be able to remember the information stored away in the brain.

So how does memory retrieval exactly work?

old grey locks and keys next to each other
Locks only open when the right key is presented. Similarly, certain memories can only be remembered when the right cue is presented.

It seems that not all the information stored in the brain is accessible. Rather, we can only recall a small fraction of the information stored in the brain at any moment in time. It is as if some of our memories are “locked away”. And require a key to be accessed.

We call those keys to locked away memories as cues. Cues work like this: Let’s say that you are trying to remember a piece of information, but you can’t. When presented with another piece of information that you associated with the information that you can’t remember, you may then start to recall what you couldn’t remember because of the association. This is one example of a cue.

Hints and cues help you retrieve memories from your brain. That’s why acronyms (a type of cue) goes a long way to helping you recall memories that you’ve stored in your brain, like ROYGBIV. Even if you can’t directly recall all of the colors of a rainbow, by using an ROYGBIV as the cue you can. Note that ROYGBIV  (or Roy G. Biv) stands for Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.

One thing to avoid though when using cues to remember information is something called, “cue overloading”. This is when one cue associates with not few, but too many different memories. A small-scale example of this would be the word, “Trump”. When a person asks you what you recall from that word, you may recall the president trump, the card game trump, the semantic meaning of trump, or words that phonetically sound like the word trump- such as tramp, truck, or trumpet. A worse cue would be something that has even more memory associations, such that the cue wouldn’t evoke the original memory you were trying to recall.

What is Long-Term Memory?

Long-Term memory is divided into two types: explicit/declarative memory, and implicit/procedural memory.

What is Explicit or Declarative Memory?

Memory that is used consciously is called explicit or declarative memory; for example, recalling factual information like facts, ideas, meanings, concepts, places, etc.

What is Implicit or Procedural Memory?

Memory that is used unconsciously is called implicit or procedural memory, like tying your shoes, which becomes so habitual after repetitions that you don’t have to actively or “consciously” think about it.

What is Repetition Priming?

A there is a type of implicit memory that is known as repetition priming.

In a typical repetition priming study, participants are exposed to words or pictures in a study phase. They then perform a test-phase task with the same or related stimuli as well as baseline (novel) stimuli.

Repetition priming refers to the difference in performance, measured in speed or accuracy, with studied and baseline stimuli; that difference reflects implicit memory acquired in the study phase.

An examples of repetition priming includes when a person repeatedly says a phone number to memorize it.

Quite strikingly, amnesic patients show normal implicit memory on many repetition priming tasks. Thus, repetition priming is mediated by different memory systems, which are intact in amnesia, than those that support declarative memory, which are injured in amnesia.

What is Episodic Memory?

Episodic memory is the memory of our experiences of specific events in time in a serialized form. In less words, Episodic memory is the memory of events.

What is Semantic Memory?

In order to understand semantic memory, it is imperative to understand what semantics are:

What is Semantics?

Semantics is the meaning of language both written and spoken. It is also the meaning of the gestures, motions, and signals used in sign language. ‘Semantics’ is a term for meaning in general. Paintings, sculptures, musical pieces, dance movements, and much more in life can have meaning — body language, facial expressions (macro- and micro-expressions).

That’s why semantics is a broader semiotic concept — it isn’t solely relevant to spoken and written language. Simple emojis have semantic content: :-) ;-) :-\ 8-) and so on, but they aren’t actual ‘language’, strictly speaking. Anytime some thing stands for some (other) thing, it’s a semantic relationship — that “stands for” relation is the basis of meaning, per se.

To reiterate, Semantics is the meanings that language communicates.

So what is Semantic Memory?

Semantic memory is the knowledge of ideas and concepts that are not drawn from personal experience. Semantic memory includes things that are common knowledge, such as the names of colors, the sounds of letters, the capitals of countries and other basic facts acquired over a lifetime. In less words, semantic memory is the memory of meanings & symbolism (meanings behind symbols).

What is Working memory?

Working memory is a type of short term memory that is manipulated. You can think of working memory as “active thinking”.

Short term memory is knowledge that can be stored or kept of a brief period of time, like a couple of seconds. And working memory is the same, except the information can be manipulated, processed, or changed while still being remember. For example, mathematics requires you to remember the results of many different operations for a brief period of time while you work out the solution. Another example is writing down a paraphrased version of a teacher is saying. This requires you to remember briefly what the teacher said, and transform the words while maintaining or remembering the conceptual meaning of what the teacher said.

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