Episodic Memory And How To Improve It: A Step-By-Step Training Guide

Image of young woman at a graduation to illustrate a concept in episodic memoryDoes your episodic memory help you remember your first prom?

You wore a lovely turquoise gown, your mom couldn’t stop smiling, and your dad was delighted to meet your date. It was a fantastic evening, right?


Let’s just say, that’s how you remember it.

If you ask your mom, on the other hand, she would say:

“It was a frantic evening. You couldn’t decide what to wear and were almost in tears when the hair-rollers wouldn’t set in. More annoyingly, your dad was upset about your date and was being difficult”.

Each person remembers a specific event in his or her unique way – this is called your episodic memory.

What Is Episodic Memory

A proper episodic memory definition must include a few features:

  1. Episodic memory is related to periods of time.
  2. It is unique and personal to you.
  3. It relies on semantic memory.
  4. It is not autobiographical memory.

Your experience of episodic memory may include aspects about yourself, like your first dentist visit. They tend to be memories that you can easily relate to others verbally, and observe how your recall may differ from that of other people.

In sum, episodic memory involves the recollection of specific events, situations, and experiences.

Episodic Memory Examples Are Easy To Find


More examples of episodic memory would include your memory of your first day of school or your first kiss.

Apart from your overall recall of the event itself, episodic memories also involve your memory of the location and time that the event occurred. And it is important to notice that these memories are time bound. They have a beginning, middle and an end.

For another powerful episodic memory example, please watch this video. It includes some powerful exercises that will help you improve your episodic memory too:

Someone else’s recollection of that same event or experience would be different (maybe not as dramatically different as your prom night, but different nevertheless).

If you want to remember past events in its full technicolor details, you must strengthen your episodic memory.


Are Episodic Memories And Autobiographical Memories The Same?


Not exactly!

Autobiographical and episodic memories are personal memories from the past.

However, autobiographical memory is more general, for example, when you recall the street name of a house growing up.

On the other hand, episodic memory is more specific to time. 

Image to illustrate how time is related to episodic memory

It’s like remembering your 13th birthday party that took place on a particular street. (Electromagnetic Differences in the Brain during Memory Retrieval, Warren Scott Merrifield, 2007)

Although autobiographical memory involves episodic memory, it also relies on semantic memory.

For instance, you can remember the city you were born in and the date, but you wouldn’t have any specific memories of being born. For more information, here’s a full article on the differences between semantic and episodic memory.


Here’s A Fascinating Fact:


Research into links between various types of memory and handedness suggest that ambidextrous people (who can perform some tasks with one hand and some with the other) tend to show better autobiographical memory than people who perform almost all tasks with either one hand or the other.

In contrast to autobiographical and episodic memories, semantic memory refers to the understanding of factual knowledge. This aspect is important:

It means that information is not connected to any specific time and place. For example, consider your understanding that the sky is blue. You don’t have to think about any particular section of sky, or any particular time of day. For this reason, semantic memory is similar to looking an item up in the dictionary.

Often an individual has no specific recollection, or thoughts of re-experiencing, the event in which the semantic information was acquired; therefore, semantic memories are thought to be “known” rather than “remembered” (McKoon, Ratcliff, & Dell, 1986).

Episodic Memory + Semantic Memory = Declarative Memory


Episodic memory and semantic memory together makeup part of your long-term memory and are known as declarative memory.

But before a memory is cemented into long-term memory as episodic memory, it must pass through the semantic memory, noted Endel Tulving of the University of Toronto in his book, Elements of Episodic Memory.

Endel Tulving Elements of Episodic Memory

Tulving and colleagues (Habib, Nyberg, & Tulving, 2003) reviewed a large body of neuroimaging research to develop the Hemispheric Encoding and Retrieval Model (HERA).

According to HERA, the left prefrontal cortex (PFC) is more involved than right PFC in episodic memory encoding while the right PFC is more involved than left PFC in episodic memory retrieval.

As the left hemisphere is related to semantic processing, encoding of the episodic information appears to involve the semantic network. (Intensive Semantic Memory Training: A Comparison to Traditional Episodic Memory Therapy in TBI, Elisabeth C. D’Angelo, 2016)


Lost & Found:
The Incredible Sense Of Episodic Memory


In the 1913 novel In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust describes an interesting scene.

Proust in Search of Lost Time

The protagonist of the novel, upon tasting a Madeleine cake for the first time in many years, is overcome with a sudden change in his thoughts, emotions, and overall internal mental state.

Initially, he struggles to define the change that has occurred. Soon, and with conscious mental effort, he is able to identify what change has overcome him: he has retrieved an episodic memory.

The memory was of his youth when his Aunt used to serve him the small cake at her kitchen table. (Spatiotemporal Dynamics Of Neural Activity During Human Episodic Memory Encoding and Retrieval, John F. Burke, 2014)

And it’s a memory that involves all the senses, just like we talk about with the Magnetic Modes:

Magnetic Memory Method Magnetic Modes And Magnetic Imagery Infographic For Powerful Memory Palace creation


How Are Episodic Memories Formed?


Forming episodic memories is not an easy recipe. Several individual steps are involved, each of which requires activating distinct regions of the brain.

The first step is called encoding, a process that your brain follows each time you form a new episodic memory.

The next step is consolidation, where the information moves from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. This enables the memory to become strongly ingrained so that it is not lost even if the brain suffers any impairment.

The final process involves recall.

During this stage, your memory retrieves information about a specific incident. Sometimes recollection from long-term memory is effortless, while other times it may need a trigger – such as a word, an image or even a smell.

Other times, you might be lucky enough to experience a flashbulb memory event.


Why You Need To Improve Your Episodic Memory

Even if that’s not the case, here’s the thing:

In everyday life, episodic memories come to our rescue all the time. These memories are essential to:

Image to illustrate improving Episodic Memory for Short Term or Long term memory

Episodic memories also enable you to recall and reminisce personal experiences that are an important part of your life.

Can you imagine not being able to do that with other people who were part of those events? That would be sad.

Especially since such memories create a sense of personal history as well as a shared history with other individuals in your life.

More importantly, episodic memories allow you to “travel back in time” (Tulving, 2002) and be consciously aware of a re-experience of important life experiences.


Is There An Episodic Memory Advantage For People With ADHD? 


Recent research by Jeffrey S. Skowronek revealed that children with ADHD showed deficits in working memory but showed equal or enhanced performance on long-term episodic tasks.

“When discussing a special-event in their life, children with ADHD provided lengthier and more descriptive narratives. This ability to recall very specific details results in a successful and impressive account of the event, rich both in event-specific details as well as semantically related knowledge”. (Long-term Episodic Memory in Children With Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Jeffrey S. Skowronek, 2005)

Then there’s Jonathan Levi’s frank discussion of ADD, which I’m confident you will find a compelling listen when it comes to how he uses his episodic memory to deal with this issue.


Why Is This So Important?


Put it this way:

If you could strengthen your episodic memory, you would be able to remember better details about past experiences and events.

A stronger episodic memory would also result in improved long-term memory in students – enabling them to do better in studies.

More importantly, strengthening your episodic memory would also enable you to perform better in all aspects of your life starting today. It’s certainly better than taking vitamins for memory (here’s proof).

However, episodic memory function is extremely susceptible to cerebral aging and neurodegenerative diseases.

Just check out Jennie Gorman’s memory loss story:

Think about this, though:

The older you get, the more events you witness and the more experiences you acquire. If you could retain and recall all those memories in detail, imagine how rich a repertoire of knowledge and experience you would have to pass on to the next generation.

You may not be able to control aging, but there are ways to ensure your brain stays young and healthy even as the years pile on. And of course you can learn memory techniques any time to help improve your memory for studying.

How To Improve Episodic Memory


Exercise your brain. Regularly.


That is the most effective strategy to improve memory and retention.

But here’s the catch:

To get tangible results, your brain exercises must be targeted towards specific goals.

Playing brain exercise games on your “smartphone” is not necessarily brain exercise. Nor will doing crossword puzzles keep your brain young and active.

Instead of improving your brain in its entirety, playing crossword puzzles or brain games on a handset will only improve your abilities for those games.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Just check out all the people on this live call who agreed:

What’s the solution?

Watch movies.

I know that sounds ridiculous. But please hear me out as I explain in detail How to Increase Memory By Watching Movies & Series.

The next time you watch a movie, give it your entire attention with the intent to remember more.

That’s the first step.

According to Harry Lorayne, (who always tells great stories)memory ability begins and ends with our attention.

Harry Lorayne Episodic Memory Magnetic Memory Method

If you do an activity like watching a TV series or a movie with the intention of remembering more details, you’ll have already given yourself a memory boost.


4 Step-By-Step Strategies To Improve Memory
And Retention Using Movies


1. Watch the movie and try to remember the beginning, middle, and end of the plot with some details about the characters: names, clothes, objects they handled, houses they lived in, street names, maybe even dialogues.

If you’re interested in learning more about memorizing plot points, check out this episode of the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast on memorizing plot points.

2. Next, retell the entire story to a friend or your partner. (Just make sure it’s not a movie they have been waiting to watch themselves. It can be extremely hazardous to reveal plot spoilers!)

3. For added benefits, verbally recount the movie and then write down a description. This will exercise more parts of your memory and deeply improve recall.

4. Another related method is to listen to your friend retell the latest episode of your favorite show. Commit to memory at least three major pieces of information from that story as your friend tells it to you.

This Memory Strategy Works Amazing For Adults


Next time you meet someone, memorize four details about that person – like what they are wearing or how they order their coffee.

I learned about this when I discussed Memory Improvement Tips With Dr. Gary Small.

This simple method of observation with intent and then detailed recall will strengthen your episodic memory and enable you to become a better observer of the world around you.


Add A Memory Palace


There’s more:

If you want a guaranteed method that will improve your episodic and semantic memory as well as autobiographical memory, build Memory Palaces the Magnetic Memory Method way.

Unlike mind mapping, which unlocks multiple intelligences, a Magnetic Memory Method Memory Palace approach does that and more.

This incredible combination of intelligence and memory strengthening is very powerful. This is true because, combined with Magnetic Recall Rehearsal, this holistic process lets you move information from short-term memory into long-term memory faster.

All you have to do is add the details from movies, or from people you meet in the streets to your Memory Palace.

The best part?

You can use The Freedom Journal to help you organize your Memory Palace Network and write about your life every day.

Even better:

While you can use all other memory techniques inside of Memory Palaces, it never happens the other way around.

For instance, you can’t use Memory Palaces inside of the Major Method the way you can use the Major Method inside of Memory Palaces.

If you choose this memory training technique…

Click the link below to get started:

Free Memory Palace Memory Improvement Course


Be Mindful Of Your Surroundings  

No, not this kind of mindful (though meditation for memory and focus will certainly help):

Just be mindful of the things around you and repeat the stories that surround them to exercise your episodic memory.

Being mindful and paying attention to everyday events is essential to creating complete memories and useful recall of information.

Mindfulness = Memory Improvement

The more mindful you are throughout the day, the more attention you’ll pay.

The more attention you pay, the more naturally and effortlessly you’ll store events and facts you experience into your episodic memory.

And remember, it all happens in time, with a beginning, middle and an end.

And when you combine mindfulness with the magic of Memory Palaces and these sensory memory exercises, you can move information into long-term memory faster and with predictable and reliable permanence.

You might even be able to help resolve issues with PTSD, as my student Nicholas Castle found.

Sounds good, right?

Now… if only you could remember what you got Uncle Alan for his last birthday, you can save yourself the embarrassment of sending him the ‘crazy uncle’ mug for the fifth time!

10 Responses

  1. Thanks for a great article with so much stuff in it. In the video with Jenny you mention a TED talk with Caspar somebody but I didn’t catch the name. Can you let me know what it is? Thanks!

  2. Hi Anthony,

    Lovely and expansive talk on episodic memory.

    I frequently call on my episodic memory to learn technical vocabulary and concepts.

    Episodic memory is splendid to use in memory palace work because the episodic memory is so powerful and emotionally compelling.

    Adding olfactory, gustatory, aural or other memories to the concepts forms excellent “memory strings and threads” to weave into into your mental tapestry of learning.

    All best wishes!

    1. Many thanks, Alex. I appreciate you stopping by as always.

      Yes, the emotions of episodic memory are perhaps the most powerful part. I should have drawn that out more.

      I like the “memory strings and threads” image too. That connects strongly with the Rhizomatic effect I talk about in terms of escaping the linear tree metaphor of learning and knowledge.

      Thanks again and look forward as ever to your next post! 🙂

  3. I had not heard about the concept of “memory palaces” as tool until I read this post. Looks involved.

    I can however relate to episodic memories, especially of the personal kind, that “create a sense of personal history” with others in my life.

    Now, there’s a thought: “You may not be able to control aging, but there are ways to ensure your brain stays young.”

  4. Thank you for saying watch and then try and recall movies and tv. I have long believed that these are the number 1 way to improve episodic memory – what could be a more direct method of training it? You can read, but then you make the images and voices up in your head yourself.

    I’m sick of reading ridiculous things about watching tv being bad for you, it’s sad to see such pseudoscience and myths still being published today. Watching tv is more natural to the human brain than reading, I’m not going to say it’s better than reading overall but it certainly has its place.

    That doesn’t mean watching one episode after the other uncritically and forgetting them all later is a good idea, but exactly what you said – recalling them, imagining the plot unfurling in your head.

    Of course you could do the same for anything where something interesting happens, a play, maybe a seminar, but tv shows and movies are just so convenient. And what’s important is that most people like it as well.

    I’ve been reading so much about episodic memory, it’s really refreshing to finally see someone brave enough to come out and television and movies. I swear I don’t know what some of these so-called “scientists” that they have all these ridiculous articles about alpha waves or whatever all the way up to modern times, putting out all this cross-sectional nonsense.

    It could be that there will soon be a change, just like there was with video games, and they will finally bite their tongue and admit that not only is tv not bad for you, it’s actually good for you – just make sure to give your memory a good workout in the process. N-back stuff is not natural, primates looking at stuff (like tv) is natural. I’ll be sure to check out some more of your stuff.

    1. Thanks for this, Padraig.

      The reality is that watching TV can be bad for you in many ways. Form and content are two separate issues, and what one chooses to watch and the games people choose to play is its own issue.

      Likewise, “bad for groups” is a different topic than “bad for individuals.” This is important to keep in mind.

      I’m not sure which scientists or reports you’re referring to, but if they are real scientists, they will be more than glad to have their findings improved.

      I’m also not sure about your use of the word “natural,” but generally I would agree:

      If television did not come from nature, where else could it have come from?

      Just note that “natural” does not equal “good.” And primates looking at TV screens does not necessarily tell us much of anything.

      As for reading, I “hear” what you’re saying (in my head). There’s actually a lot of great research on this I came across when completing my first MA. In particularly, you might like Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate by Kamilla Elliot.

      Check it out if you have a chance.

      Thanks for your post today and look forward to your next one here on the MMM blog! 🙂

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Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names, music, poetry and more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

Dr. Metivier holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from York University and has been featured in Forbes, Viva Magazine, Fluent in 3 Months, Daily Stoic, Learning How to Learn and he has delivered one of the most popular TEDx Talks on memory improvement.

His most popular books include, The Victorious Mind and… Read More

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