Conscious Experiences of Memory

The pinnacle of conscious human memory functions is known as episodic recollection because it allows one to reexperience the past, to virtually relive an earlier event. People who suffer from amnesia due to neurological damage to certain critical brain areas have poor memory for events and facts. Their memory deficit disrupts the type of memory termed declarative memory and makes it difficult to consciously remember. However, amnesic insults typically spare a set of memory functions that do not involve conscious remembering. These other types of memory, which include various habits, motor skills, cognitive skills, and procedures, can be demonstrated when an individual executes various actions as a function of prior learning, but in these cases a conscious experience of remembering is not necessarily included.

Research on amnesia has thus supported the proposal that conscious remembering requires a specific set of brain operations that depend on networks of neurons in the cerebral cortex.


Memory is one basis for conscious awareness. [Image: CC0 Public Domain,]

Some of the other types of memory involve only subcortical brain regions, but there are also notable exceptions. In particular, perceptual priming is a type of memory that does not entail the conscious experience of remembering and that is typically preserved in amnesia. Perceptual priming is thought to reflect a fluency of processing produced by a prior experience, even when the individual cannot remember that prior experience. For example, a word or face might be perceived more efficiently if it had been viewed minutes earlier than if it hadn’t. Whereas a person with amnesia can demonstrate this item-specific fluency due to changes in corresponding cortical areas, they nevertheless would be impaired if asked to recognize the words or faces they previously experienced. A reasonable conclusion on the basis of this evidence is that remembering an episode is a conscious experience not merely due to the involvement of one portion of the cerebral cortex, but rather due to the specific configuration of cortical activity involved in the sharing or integration of information.

Further neuroscientific studies of memory retrieval have shed additional light on the necessary steps for conscious recollection. For example, storing memories for the events we experience each day appears to depend on connections among multiple cortical regions as well as on a brain structure known as the hippocampus. Memory storage becomes more secure due to interactions between the hippocampus and cerebral cortex that can transpire over extended time periods following the initial registration of information. Conscious retrieval thus depends on the activity of elaborate sets of networks in the cortex. Memory retrieval that does not include conscious recollection depends either on restricted portions of the cortex or on brain regions separate from the cortex.

The ways in which memory expressions that include the awareness of remembering differ from those that do not thus highlight the special nature of conscious memory experiences (Paller, Voss, & Westerberg, 2009; Voss, Lucas, & Paller, 2012). Indeed, memory storage in the brain can be very complex for many different types of memory, but there are specific physiological prerequisites for the type of memory that coincides with conscious recollection.


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UPEI Introduction to Psychology 1 by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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