Semantic memory: what is it and how to develop it?

Think what you say and say what you think. We do both thanks to semantic memory. And depending on how it is developed, we can stop our judgments in time or, conversely, convince anyone of our rightness.

What it is?

The definition comes from the Greek semantikos, which translates as «denoting». Semantic memory stores our knowledge of words, rules of etiquette and behavior, concepts of a particular object, action, and so on. First of all, we need it to use language and speech. In general, the concept of semantic memory in psychology began to be widely used a little more than half a century ago.

In the late sixties, this term was introduced into science by the American psychologist Michael Ross Quillian. And in 1972, his Canadian colleague with Estonian roots, Endel Tulving, singled out another type of semantic memory, which, according to his theory, is responsible for storing data, episodic memory, which stores memories of events.

But anyway it is a kind of chain of knowledge that is formed from words, any other verbal symbols, concepts of meanings and their relationships, as well as our ability to apply all this in life. That is, our “piggy bank” called “semantic memory” stores not only words and sentences, but also images of these words, ideas about them, concepts of entire life situations, for example, the basics of etiquette or knowledge of elementary safety rules, understanding our location (maps and diagrams are “stacked” next to the words about them). In this way, it is semantic memory that influences how we understand this or that event in our life in particular and in society as a whole, allows us to find or not to find mutual understanding with other people.

In psychology, it is believed that the semantic load is distributed as follows. Our concepts of objects, plants, animals, buildings, that is, everything that we can see, are stored in the “visual department”. The skills of owning tools, the ability to perform any actions live in another, motor part of the brain. It’s quite understandable why some scholars consider semantic memory to be autobiographical. After all, each of us can have our own personal idea of ​​​​anything, and this is due to what knowledge, concepts, actions we remember, perhaps even in childhood.


When resorting to this memory, we often do not even think, although it works hard when we are talking, reading, solving some problem. After all, everyone knows that twice two is four, there is nothing to think about.


Unlike episodic


First there was the word, and then the deed. So it is with memory. According to some studies, semantic memory appears in our childhood, when we simply learn certain facts, then, acquiring our own life experience, we begin to “put it aside” in episodic memory. In any case, the development of both depends on many factors, thanks to which we can receive, process and reproduce information. And here again it is worth paying attention to the separation of semantic and episodic memory.

  • Semantic ready to receive new knowledge. But already accumulated knowledge, as well as our attitude towards it, practically does not change. Everyone knows that the water is salty in the sea, and the stars are in the sky.
  • episodic memory stores data about what we experienced ourselves or saw with our own eyes. The same meteor shower or performance of a star.

Meanwhile one cannot exist without the other. Remembering the last concert, we will first turn to the semantic part of our memory, it will tell us general words and phrases that describe what we saw, and then we will connect the episodic one, which will clarify our personal attitude to what happened, we will try to recreate the picture we need, as if it is happening right now . But do not forget that, unlike the semantic one, it is highly subject to change. Any of our new knowledge can affect the attitude to what is happening. Yesterday you were delighted with this artist, and today you learned that he is a criminal, it is unlikely that next time you will talk about how he sang with the same breath and enthusiasm as before.

But data stored in semantic memory are not subject to change. The earth is round, the sky is blue, the sea is deep, the dog barks, the caravan moves on. Semantic memory also has one more feature.

More often than not, it moves from the general to the particular. For example, with the word «fruit» she gives out the following — «sweet», «apple». Although the inhabitants of Asian countries, most likely, instead of a fruit from our garden, an image of a mango arose, for example.

Forgetting in semantic memory


Just as semantic and episodic memory receive information in different ways, they each lose it in their own way.

  • As regards the first, problems with it mostly come down to what is called «spinning on the tongue». We know exactly what we want to say, but we can’t remember the right word, concept, name. Or we know the artist’s name for sure, but can’t remember to say it out loud. But as soon as we give the name of his first wife, the name of the first song, it is worth sounding a few notes from his hit, then both the name and surname of the star emerge from the subcortex. The same is with the celestial stars — you forgot something from an astronomy lesson, but just thought about how you walked under the moon, and immediately remembered the information you needed at the moment.
  • Episodic memory, on the other hand, sometimes, without our permission, erases certain memories from our lives or, conversely, stores information about an event that we should have forgotten for a long time. The answer to the question why this is happening is being sought by the brightest minds of mankind. Only one thing is known for sure — episodic memory is mobile, sometimes it gives us memories from distant childhood, sometimes it cannot find data about the last month.

All this is purely individual and depends on the value and importance of the moment, the abilities of our memory, and all its types, and much more.

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