Episodic Versus Semantic Memory
There were a lot of interesting topics that we went over these past few lessons, however, one in particular stuck out to me more than the rest. This was the section on episodic memory and semantic memory, and I think what I found the most interesting was where Tulving mentioned the idea of mental time travel. When I think of time travel I think of jumping into a weird contraption and zooming to the future or somewhere in the past, but I never realized that I am essentially doing the same thing when I look back on my life thus far and access these memories that I have stored away. Now, the difference between episodic memories and sematic memories is that episodic memories represent our memory of experiences and specific events in time in a serial form, from which we can reconstruct the actual events that took place at any given point in our lives. Semantic memories on the other hand, is a more structured record of facts, meanings, concepts and knowledge about the external world that we have acquired (Mastin, 2010). With that said, I think when it comes to memory, episodic memories are much more powerful and last much longer than semantic memories do.
Before we can talk about episodic and semantic memory, we have to first understand what memory actually is. Memory is defined as our ability to encode, store, retain and subsequently recall information and past experiences in the human brain (Mastin, 2010). It can be thought of in general terms as the use of past experience to affect or influence current behavior. Basically, it is the sum of all that we remember, and we use these past thoughts to influence our decisions in the present and in the future. Take for example a hot stove, when you were a child you might have burned yourself on a hot stove and it hurt, but you never touched it again, because you remembered what it felt like the first time you did. It is with these life experiences, these memories, that we learn from life and avoid making the same mistake twice. In more physiological or neurological terms, all that memories actually are is a set of encoded neural connections in the brain. It is the re-creation or reconstruction of past experiences by the synchronous firing of neurons that were involved in the original experience (Mastin, 2010). Pretty simple huh?
Now that we understand what memory actually is we can talk about episodic versus semantic memory and why I feel that one is better than the other. Well, not necessarily better, but more useful in the long run. According to our text, episodic memories includes memories for events in which we participated, essentially you can remember exactly when it occurred and the feelings that were associated with the memory and therefore can recall the exact time that we encoded the memory. Take for example a very personal memory of mine that will haunt me for my entire life, the day my mother called to tell me that my father had died. I will never forget what I was wearing, what I was watching (the exact episode), what the weather was like, the atmosphere, the sounds of my apartment, the time of day, the smell that lingered in the air, the kind of tea that I was making and the color nail polish I was wearing and so on. Every single detail of that day will forever be engraved in my brain, but ask me what I was wearing the day after and I can’t even begin to tell you or what I had for breakfast 2 weeks ago, I have no idea. What makes episodic memories so special and so vivid is because they are basically the memories of autobiographical events, you can literally see yourself as an actor in these events, and the emotional charge and the entire context surrounding an even is usually part of the memory, not just the bare facts of the event itself (Mastin, 2010).
Semantic memories are different than episodic memories in that it’s just simply memory recall, there is nothing special about it. Semantic memories are just facts and knowledge that we have about the world, there is no mental time travel involved. Semantic memories include things like vocabulary, mathematics, recalling state capitals, and things of that nature. For example, I know how to drive a car, sadly I can’t remember the learning process, it might have been an episodic memory at one time, but it is so insignificant now, it is just something that almost runs on autopilot. I can also tell you that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and a ton of other information that I can recite should anyone ask. The difference here though is that I can’t remember the exact moment that I learned any of this. The book goes on to say that semantic memory is not something you will recall learning unless it is a pretty memorable learning experience, and that is the difference between episodic memory and semantic memory, whether or not we can remember the learning experience (Goldstein, 2011).
All in all, it is pretty clear to see why I think that episodic memory is stronger than semantic memory. It has to do with the specific type off autobiographical memory known as a flashbulb memory, which is a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid snapshot of a moment or circumstance in which surprising, or consequential or anything that is emotionally arousing was learned. These memories will tend to be much more resistant to forgetting mainly due to the strong emotions that are typically associated with them. Reading about it in a textbook and being there first hand are two completely different things. Take the tragedy that unfolded on 9/11, I’m sure being in New York at the time is something that people will not forget, however, reading about it in the newspaper might not arouse the same kind of memories. It is this emotional charge that makes these episodic memories unforgettable and I think that is what sets them apart and makes them a lot more special than semantic memories.
Mastin, L. (2010). Episodic & Semantic Memory. The Human Memory. Retrieved from http://www.human-memory.net/types_episodic.html
Goldstein, B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting mind, research and everyday experience (3rd edition). Wadsworth, Inc.