Semantic Memory

Semantic memory is a system of memory involving the encoding, storage, and retrieval of facts, definitions, concepts, and other forms of cognitive knowledge. Semantic memory is often contrasted with episodic memory, the memory of what, where, and when a discrete event happened in one's own past experience. It is also distinguished from procedural memory, the knowledge of how to accomplish a task. Scientists study semantic memory and other types of memory to further our understanding of how the brain works and how humans and animals learn and retain knowledge. Studies of how semantic memory is formed, retained, and retrieved may also help researchers develop treatments and therapies for conditions that involve cognitive memory loss, such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia, amnesia, and traumatic brain injury.


Estonian Canadian psychologist and neuroscientist Endel Tulving first distinguished episodic memory from semantic memory in 1972 in “Episodic and Semantic Memory,” a chapter in Organization of Memory, which he edited with Wayne Donaldson. At the time, Tulving wrote that he was making the distinction in order to facilitate discussion, not because he necessarily believed that the two systems were structurally or functionally separate.

Tulving further expounded on episodic and semantic memory in his much-cited 1983 book Elements of Episodic Memory. In this work, he asserts, among other things, the then-controversial theory that episodic memory and semantic memory are functionally distinct. Various experiments have supported Tulving's theory, demonstrating that semantic and episodic tasks are distinct. Since then, neuroimaging models have shown that episodic memory retrieval and semantic memory retrieval involve different parts of the brain. However, researchers remain divided as to whether semantic memory is still stored in some part of the hippocampal formation, as with episodic memory; involves a fully different area of the brain, such as the temporal neocortex; or is distributed among different regions.

There are a variety of disorders that impact semantic memory. Most notable are Alzheimer's disease and semantic dementia, both of which are studied in order to better understand semantic memory processes. Conversely, research into semantic memory may prove useful in treating or curing these and other memory disorders.

—Lisa U. Phillips, MFA

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