The 5 Types of Memory Everyone Has and Why They Matter

Updated: Oct. 21, 2020

Your memory has two main components: a working memory faculty for thoughts that are currently active in your mind, and a long-term store of events, skills and facts.

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Short-term (working) memory

Short-term memory is temporary. Its principle characteristic is its low capacity, meaning it’s quickly saturated. We can retain on average seven unassociated items (such as letters, words, or numbers) for a few minutes—unless you train like a memory champion with these pro tricks to get a superhuman memory. This is called the “span.” Psychologists realized that short-term memory is in constant use as we talk, think, and act, so they began to refer to short-term memory as “working memory” to emphasize its active role.

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Episodic memory (personal events)

You use your episodic memory to answer questions such as, “What did you do last weekend?” or to remember the first time you saw snow or swam in the ocean. Memories, especially episodic ones, are more easily retrieved the more dramatic they are, and adopting these healthy habits that boost your brain makes that process even easier. If you think about special events from your life, such as holidays and birthdays, it’s likely that the events you remember clearly stand out for some exceptional reason, either good or bad. Ordinary examples tend to merge into each other.

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Long-term memory

All the facts that you know, all the things that you can do, many of the events in your life plus all the surprising things you didn’t even know you knew: this huge store of knowledge is what makes up your long-term memory. Because it’s such a vast amount of storage to tap into, it’s a good idea to keep your brain active and alert, but also take note when it becomes harder to remember these thoughts. Long-term memory loss could be a sign of certain types of dementia. If you notice more signs your brain is aging faster than you, it’s time to talk to your doctor.

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Semantic memory (facts)

Our semantic memory is our store of general knowledge: facts, concepts and vocabulary. You can even use it to improve your vocabulary in just one day. This type of memory allows us to answer questions such as, “What is the capital of Italy?” We know the answers but we generally have forgotten where, when, and how we learned them. Semantic and episodic memory often overlap when we talk about past events. For example, it’s thanks to our semantic memory that we know the result of the last national election. But the political importance of the event also allows us to recall the personal memories that we associate with it, which come from our episodic memory.


Procedural memory (skills)

These include physical and mental skills acquired over time, such as riding a bike, writing, or using a keyboard. Most of our procedural knowledge is used automatically without conscious recollection of how to apply it. Procedural memory is also known as implicit or habitual memory. While some skills that are learned, such as reading or riding a bike, endure without much practice, others such as speaking a foreign language or playing a musical instrument have a “use it or lose it” character, and must be kept in regular use to be retained. Borrow these habits of people with an impressive memory, and you’ll never have to worry about losing your brain power.

Originally Published in Your Active Brain