Varieties of Memory

For most of us, remembering digits relies on short-term memory, or working memory—the ability to hold information in our minds for a brief time and work with it (e.g., multiplying 24 x 17 without using paper would rely on working memory). Another type of memory is episodic memory—the ability to remember the episodes of our lives. If you were given the task of recalling everything you did 2 days ago, that would be a test of episodic memory; you would be required to mentally travel through the day in your mind and note the main events. Semantic memory is our storehouse of more-or-less permanent knowledge, such as the meanings of words in a language (e.g., the meaning of “parasol”) and the huge collection of facts about the world (e.g., there are 196 countries in the world, and 206 bones in your body). Collective memory refers to the kind of memory that people in a group share (whether family, community, schoolmates, or citizens of a state or a country). For example, residents of small towns often strongly identify with those towns, remembering the local customs and historical events in a unique way. That is, the community’s collective memory passes stories and recollections between neighbors and to future generations, forming a memory system unto itself.



To be a good chess player you have to learn to increase working memory so you can plan ahead for several offensive moves while simultaneously anticipating – through use of memory – how the other player could counter each of your planned moves. [Image: karpidis,, CC BY-SA 2.0,]

Psychologists continue to debate the classification of types of memory, as well as which types rely on others (Tulving, 2007), but for this module we will focus on episodic memory. Episodic memory is usually what people think of when they hear the word “memory.” For example, when people say that an older relative is “losing her memory” due to Alzheimer’s disease, the type of memory-loss they are referring to is the inability to recall events, or episodic memory. (Semantic memory is actually preserved in early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.) Although remembering specific events that have happened over the course of one’s entire life (e.g., your experiences in sixth grade) can be referred to as autobiographical memory, we will focus primarily on the episodic memories of more recent events.


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

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