Semantic memory is a subset of long-term memory that processes ideas and concepts that are not based on human experience. It covers common knowledge such as color names, letter sounds, country capitals, and other fundamental facts learned during a lifetime.
Semantic memory is a relatively recent notion. It was developed as a result of a partnership between Endel Tulving of the University of Toronto and Wayne Donaldson of the University of New Brunswick on the impact of the organization on human memory in 1972.
Tulving defined the distinct conceptualization systems of episodic and semantic memory in his work “Elements of Episodic Memory.” He saw that semantic and episodic act differently and process different sorts of information.
Prior to Tulving, there had been few in-depth examinations or research into human memory. Several research initiatives have since looked into the differences between semantic and episodic memory. J.F. Kihlstrom conducted some of the most prominent semantic memory tests in the 1980s to explore the effects of hypnosis on semantic and episodic memory.
The Fundamentals of Memory Formation
To begin, it can be beneficial to grasp the fundamental physics of memory formation. Memory is one of the cognitive processes that comprise the central nervous system. Its formation occurs in the medial temporal lobe and is divided into three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.
Memory encoding is the process by which information is transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory. If you’ve ever been introduced to someone and then forgotten their name, it’s likely that you became sidetracked and the name was never encoded into information that your brain wanted to remember.
The hippocampus is primarily responsible for memory storage, as it develops and indexes memories for later use. Well-established memories slowly migrate from the hippocampus to the neocortex—the outermost surface of the brain involved in higher-order activities such as sensory perception, language, and spatial reasoning.
Memory retrieval is the process of accessing and strengthening memories. Memory retrieval is a key aspect of continuing memory development because the more a given memory is recalled, the stronger it gets. Academic studying approaches that require repetition are one example of this, because repeated retrieval of facts and figures increases the likelihood that those pieces of information may be recalled at whim. The amygdala assigns an initial strength to memories, which means that those with greater emotional weight are stronger and easier to recall than those with little or no emotional component.
It refers to the ability to store general knowledge about the world, such as functional and perceptual characteristics of objects we meet, as well as other general facts we may link with them. The anterior temporal lobes are the primary sites of semantic memory. Semantic memories are linked to a conceptual understanding of the world and are not usually linked to a specific experience. It enables us to associate word meanings with pieces of knowledge, making it an important component in our capacity to describe what we’ve seen or experienced.
Our ability to acquire, retain, and use factual information would be severely hampered without semantic memory, making semantic knowledge representations a critical component of any individual’s overall memory functioning, as well as communication, learning, relationships, and many other cognitive tasks and aspects of life.
Semantic Memory vs. Episodic Memory
Consider the case of someone who recently visited the zoo to better understand the distinction between episodic and semantic memory. If you ask the person to recall the trip, they will most likely be able to close their eyes and recall the zoo and the animals they saw. If you ask the person about their vacation, they should be able to explain the animals and other elements of the location. When they imagine the zoo in their heads, they are mostly depending on episodic memory. When they describe the zoo to you and name the animals they saw, they are using world knowledge – semantic memory – to give language descriptions to their experiences.
In practice, episodic and semantic memory are the same thing. In everyday life, the ordinary person performs both semantic and episodic activities, and both semantic and episodic memory entails key aspects of retention and recall. They are managed by distinct areas of the brain, although they can work both alone and collaboratively.
In one study, researchers discovered that patients with dementia whose use of one form of memory was significantly affected frequently retained complete use of the other. However, research has discovered that “semantic memory facilitates the acquisition of new episodic memories” and “episodic memories facilitate the retrieval of information from semantic memory.” In other words, episodic and semantic memory is critical for optimal performance.
How to Improve Semantic Memory
The act of increasing semantic memory is also known as studying, which the typical individual may be more familiar with. While episodic memory is a subconscious process, developing semantic memory – and the organization of semantic memory – involves concentration and effort, but it is doable. There are, however, ways other than repetitive material review that can be more helpful in strengthening semantic memory and processing.
One such tactic is the memory palace memorizing technique, commonly known as the Loci technique. It entails using your episodic memory to improve your semantic memory. Here’s how you might use this strategy to remember facts or concepts:
Choose your palace. Consider a location that is familiar enough to you that you can visualize strolling through it, such as your childhood home or your office. The path you take through the structure in your mind should be the same each time you “visit” your palace. Make a floor layout that shows the linear path you’ll take.
Make a list of distinguishing characteristics. Look for distinguishing characteristics, artifacts, or areas of interest in the structure, such as furniture or hallways. On your floor plan, number each of these features in the order you’ll see them as you walk your route.
Associate memories with characteristics. Assign a piece of information to each characteristic you’ve discovered along the way. It’s especially useful if you can make some connection between the characteristics and the information you’re seeking to remember.
‘Walk’ your way through the palace. Walk through your mind palace in your mind’s eye, noticing each feature you mentioned. The link between your episodic memory retrieval of the characteristic and the semantic notions you’re attempting to remember should make the semantic information easier to recall.
Simple memory tactics such as concept linking, mnemonics, self-testing, and interleaving can also help increase semantic memory. Remember that any progress in your semantic memory system will necessitate effort and devotion to practice.
How Therapy Can Assist
Meeting with a therapist can be beneficial for people who are struggling with semantic memory (or other memory issues). Therapy can help people who have been diagnosed with semantic dementia or other similar cognitive disorders cope with challenging emotions related to their illness. It can assist persons whose everyday functioning is negatively influenced by traumatic past memories in addressing them and developing healthy coping strategies. Therapy can also help people who are dealing with memory as a symptom of a mental health illness such as depression.
Virtual treatment can be just as beneficial as in-person therapy in many circumstances. If you’d rather meet with a therapist online from the comfort of your own home rather than travel to an office for each visit, try Better Help. You will be matched with a licensed therapist who will meet with you by phone, video call, or online chat to address any issues you may be experiencing. Many people prefer this therapy format to traditional, in-office sessions because it is more convenient and cost-effective. However, because each format can be beneficial for people suffering from memory problems or a range of other mental health conditions, you can usually choose the one that feels appropriate for you.
Human memory is extremely complicated and not entirely understood, but researchers have identified the malleability of several components of memory, including ways to improve information retention. Meeting with a doctor and/or a mental health professional may be beneficial if you are suffering from memory problems.