You may not have realized—or remembered (wink, wink) that there are several different types of memory. The various kinds are connected to different abilities and are also affected differently—or not at all—over time. Learn about a few of the most well-known types in this crash course in human memory. (Bonus: Learning new things can improve memory.) First, we’ll start with the three major types: sensory, short-term and long-term.
Sensory Memory. This is the earliest stage of memory—and it moves quickly. Sensory memory is your brain’s natural ability to retain information obtained from your five senses. Within this category is iconic memory (relates to vision; like seeing the residual light trails from a sparkler at night), echoic memory (relates to sound) and haptic memory (relates to touch).
Short-term Memory. This is also known as “working memory” and houses information that is currently in use. For example, as you are reading this sentence, your short-term memory allows you to remember the beginning of the sentence as you make your way to the end—therefore, allowing you to understand what the sentence means. Pretty cool, huh?
Long-term Memory. This is the big database where your brain stores information over time, and manages and retrieves the information for later use. Short-term memories can become long-term memories if you actively rehearse, repeat or study the information.
Long-term memory is further broken down into explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) memory. Let’s look at our unconscious memory first:
Procedural Memory. Within your long-term memory exists your procedural memory—which allows you to do things without thinking, like ride a bike or open a jar. Luckily, your procedural memory usually stays the same throughout your lifetime, although your ability to do multiple tasks at once may decline.
Ready for the last section? (Betcha didn’t even have to think about it because your procedural memory moved you onto the next sentence.) These last two types of long-term memory are a part of your conscious memory:
Semantic Memory. Good news first! For many people, semantic memory actually improves over the course of a lifetime. This type of memory allows you to recall everyday facts, concepts and information, but it’s unrelated to specific experiences. Think of it as your information and knowledge storage, helping you to remember things like: What state is Chicago in? How long is the gestational period in humans?
Improving Semantic Memory: Experience helps to grow your semantic memory, so stay on top of current events, read often and do crosswords and puzzles.
Episodic Memory. These are your life experiences—and what most people think of when they think of “memories.” A form of episodic memory is autobiographical memory; this is your memories of your old house, a funny night in college, a vacation, a concert, etc. Unfortunately, episodic memory can decline as you age, but researchers are working hard to find ways to maintain and improve this type of memory.
Improving Episodic Memory: Recent research has shown that Ginkgo biloba supplements may improve episodic memory. Talk to your doctor before adding supplements to your diet.
Whew! OK, did you remember everything? Probably not, but that’s OK, your brain benefitted by just reading something new!