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What is Semantic Memory?

Mary McMahon
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Semantic memory is the portion of long term memory which is concerned with ideas, meanings, and concepts which are not related to personal experiences. Together with episodic memory, it makes up the section of the long term memory known as declarative memory. The long term memory also includes procedural memory, which is the memory of how to do things. These three different kinds of long term memory all interact with each other to allow people to do everything from reading a book to flying a space shuttle.

This type of memory is concerned with independent facts, such as what a refrigerator is, along with concepts which may be more difficult to define. By contrast, episodic memory involves events of personal relevance, such as the name of the next door neighbor's child. An example of semantic memory would be a discussion with someone in which he or she mentions owning a cat. Rather than recalling a specific episodic memory of a cat, someone can pull up the semantic definition of a cat to understand what the other person is talking about.

It may take several exposures to an idea or concept for a definition to stick in the semantic memory. This type of memory can also become confused during the early stages of learning, as for example when someone struggles to understand that two radically different styles of chair are both considered chairs, while also grasping the difference between a chair and a bench. This type of memory is especially active in childhood, as children are constantly encountering new concepts which must be defined and filed away in the semantic memory.

Semantic memory also plays a role in many human activities. For example, procedural memory provides information about how to read a newspaper, but it is semantic memory which remembers what the different letters mean, and how they link together into words. It also allows a reader to understand written communications in multiple fonts, since the brain understands the concept of a letter, rather than a specific example of a letter.

People are constantly using the information stored away in their long term memory to deal with a wide variety of situations, from totally new situations like learning how to fly a plane to routine events like taking a shower. Damage to any part of the memory can cause confusion and distress, as the brain may have difficulty contextualizing an activity or event without assistance from the long term memory.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon166607 — On Apr 09, 2011

Thank you for this article. it has helped me very much to explore certain concepts i have been grappling with since i entered college.

My passion is for mathematics and the sciences, but somehow i ended up doing latin in university. i had huge struggles over the learning of the language, and gave much thought to why i was struggling so hard when i have no problems doing complex calculus.

After reading your short explanations, i finally understand that this is because different parts of the brain is involved, and specifically, my semantic memory is probably not that great since i usually pick math subjects to take and don't use it much.

thank you for helping me understand. what i appreciate most is that you pointed out one can learn what is a cat in two different ways: semantic or episodic. cheers!

By mayankjoshi — On Feb 09, 2011

can any one suggest how to increase this semantic memory?

By Comparables — On Jul 29, 2010

@ Highlighter- Another way to improve episodic and semantic memory is to figure out your learning style. You can take a simple test to determine your learning style or multiple intelligences. Once you know these, you can tailor your studies to your style.

There are different techniques that will support different learning styles, ultimately increasing productivity. For example, someone with a visual spatial intelligence will learn better through maps, charts, pictures, and videos. Someone with this type of intelligence should organize study activities that incorporate these characteristics.

By Babalaas — On Jul 29, 2010

@ Highlighter- There are a number of things that can be done to improve short-term memory recall. Regular exercise will help you learn. Taking a quick break from your studies and walking or riding your bike for ten minutes will increase the blood flow to your brain, thus increasing oxygen flow and brain function.

Trying to find relationships between what you already know and what you are trying to learn will help turn those fleeting short-term memories into life-long memories. Using as many senses as possible in your studying will also help your brain absorb information. Think of it as immersing yourself in a concept. Learning Spanish is easier if you can expose yourself to one of the many Hispanic cultures.

By highlighter — On Jul 29, 2010

It seems like semantic memory is associated with learning new things and creating short and long-term memories of conceptual ideas. I assume that one would be using semantic memory when he or she is trying to recall something learned in a lecture or study session.

I am a student and I have been taking 17-18 credit hours per semester (all science math and foreign language this semester…no fun). I often find that by the end of the week I am beginning to blur subjects together. I want to know if there are any techniques for improving my short-term memory. Anything that can help ease my study load would be great.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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