That’s the most direct difference. In other words, distinguishing these two types of memory comes down to the type of information involved.
For example, knowing that dogs and cats have paws is semantic memory. It’s a fact.
But being able to tell the story of how you named your first pet is an episodic memory.
Of course, there’s more to the differences than that.
And on this page we’re taking a focused look at episodic and semantic memory, including powerful examples.
That way, you’ll know all the ins and outs.
You’ll learn how to exercise both so that your memory is incredibly strong.
Let’s dive in!
Episodic vs. Semantic Memory: What’s the Difference?
Whereas episodic memories refer specifically to the personal events in your life and are usually recalled in order, semantic memory is quite different.
Semantic memory involves how you “store” facts about the world.
A simple way to think about the difference is to recall something like the last time you met a friend at a restaurant.
The story of how you travelled to the restaurant and what you discussed with your friend is the episodic part of the memory. It’s literally that: the episode.
But the address of the restaurant, its name and all of the foods on the menu are semantic knowledge. The brain stores those facts differently.
Other levels of memory to keep in mind include implicit memory and explicit memory. These forms of memory relate to your unconscious and conscious mind. I mention them because you can remember the name of the street, but travel to it without thinking about that semantic information by name. But you can easily, consciously recall the name of the street if you wish, and that’s by drawing explicitly on your semantic memory.
It’s unlikely that you would ever unconsciously draw upon your episodic memory, however. Usually you think about stories from your life after some kind of context or state you fall into triggers the recalled narrative.
You can think of episodic memory as a kind of “time travel.” It helps you recall past events and events.
It’s also related to prospective memory because it helps you envision how to complete tasks in the future.
Even more importantly, episodic memory helps you experience a sense of self. You also draw upon episodic memory to think reflectively about your past. This aspect leads to your sense of empathy and helps you bond with loved ones and friends because the ability to remember past events is key to relating to others.
Semantic memory plays quite a different role. It’s a type of long-term memory your brain uses to help you store general knowledge and facts.
You draw upon it to solve problems, compare and contrast facts and make informed decisions. This is quite different than episodic memory which often leads to emotional decision making and biases. As researchers have shown, when lesions are present in the brain, both semantic and episodic memory are damaged, leading to poorer decisions.
Interestingly, damage to episodic memory can make you more risk averse. In some cases, this could be a good thing. As other researchers have found, this may relate to why decision making becomes harder as we age. Without proper access to our memory functions at large, many situations we face can start to seem ambiguous.
For this reason, we want both our semantic and episodic memory working as optimally as possible. It provides us with more context as we navigate the world and decide how to act. Interestingly, Saint Thomas Aquinas made similar observations when he discussed how having a training memory helps you live in a more skillful way. He used the word “prudence” to describe this.
How Semantic And Episodic Memory Interact
These two types of memory interact constantly.
For example, if I ask you where you grew up, semantic memory will provide the name of your city or town. Usually stories start to bubble up, and that’s due to semantic memory triggering episodic memory. Your visual memory might kick in too with a mental picture of your hometown, especially if you have hyperphantasia.
Although suffering from various diseases doesn’t really count as an “interaction,” problems with one of these types of memory will likely effect the other, especially if you’ve suffered from a stroke.
How Episodic And Semantic Memory Impact Your Daily Life
Semantic memory massively impacts your daily life. You use it to:
- Maintain focus while reading
- Learn a language
- Study textbooks
- Solve problems
- Navigate the world
- Interact socially
- Adapt to new situations
- Follow directions and not get lost (see my interview with Christopher Kemp for more on avoiding this problem)
- Plan your schedule
- Calculate math in your mind or use a calculator
When it comes to episodic memory, it helps you:
- Maintain your personal identity
- Use information from the past to plan for the future
- Share stories with friends
- Experience empathy and understanding
- Help others by sharing stories
On this final note, and interesting study has shown that stimulating your episodic memory can increase the amount of times you wish to help others.
Can You Improve Episodic And Semantic Memory?
And since we know that doing so helps you be a better person, it’s important to do so.
It works because you use locations that you’re familiar with to create associations through mnemonic imagery.
As you look through your memory for loci, you’ll exercise your semantic memory. And as you come up with vivid associations, you’ll be drawing upon facts that you already know.
If you’d like to learn more about how these techniques work so you can experience better memory overall, get my free course by clicking the image below:
You’ll love how it helps you learn faster and remember more while providing outstanding brain exercise.
Games That Improve Both Semantic And Episodic Memory
Other ways to enhance your episodic and semantic memory at the game time involve brain games for adults.
I recently invented a live-action role playing game called Memory Detective which allows you to use memory techniques while solving crimes.
But many different kinds of games have been proven to help. For example research shows that video games can enhance working memory. I would just suggest that you optimize the process by choosing games that include semantic information like vocabulary, names of locations, numbers and facts.
Other Learning Activities That Will Help
Since we know that using mnemonics immediately involves episodic memory, you can always benefit by applying them to learning goals that involve semantic information.
You can choose activities like:
- Memorizing scripture
- Working on increasing your vocabulary
- Committing historical dates to memory using a PAO System
- Remembering a famous speech
So now that you’ve had the differences described and discovered some activities that will improve both levels of memory, what do you say?
Do you feel equipped with helpful knowledge about the key differences between episodic and semantic memory?
If you have any questions, please just post them below and I’ll get back to you a.s.a.p.