Long-term Memory


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A diagram consists of three rows of boxes. The box in the top row is labeled “long-term memory;” a line from the box separates into two lines leading to two boxes on the second row, labeled “explicit memory” and “implicit memory.” From each of the second row boxes, lines split and lead to additional boxes. From the “explicit memory” box are two boxes labeled “episodic (events and experiences)” and “semantic (concepts and facts).” From the “implicit memory” box are three boxes labeled “procedural (How to do things),” “Priming (stimulus exposure affects responses to a later stimulus),” and “emotional conditioning (Classically conditioned emotional responses).”
Figure 1. There are two components of long-term memory: explicit and implicit. Explicit memory includes episodic and semantic memory. Implicit memory includes procedural memory and things learned through conditioning. Source: OpenStax Psychology 2e

Long-term Memory (OpenStax Psychology 2e)

Long-term memory (LTM) is the continuous storage of information. Unlike short-term memory, long-term memory storage capacity is believed to be unlimited. It encompasses all the things you can remember that happened more than just a few minutes ago. One cannot really consider long-term memory without thinking about the way it is organized. Really quickly, what is the first word that comes to mind when you hear “peanut butter”? Did you think of jelly? If you did, you probably have associated peanut butter and jelly in your mind. It is generally accepted that memories are organized in semantic (or associative) networks (Collins & Loftus, 1975). A semantic network consists of concepts which are categories or groupings of linguistic information, images, ideas, or memories, such as life experiences. Although individual experiences and expertise can affect concept arrangement, concepts are believed to be arranged hierarchically in the mind (Anderson & Reder, 1999; Johnson & Mervis, 1997, 1998; Palmer, Jones, Hennessy, Unze, & Pick, 1989; Rosch, Mervis, Gray, Johnson, & Boyes-Braem, 1976; Tanaka & Taylor, 1991). Related concepts are linked, and the strength of the link depends on how often two concepts have been associated.

Semantic networks differ depending on personal experiences. Importantly for memory, activating any part of a semantic network also activates the concepts linked to that part to a lesser degree. The process is known as spreading activation (Collins & Loftus, 1975). If one part of a network is activated, it is easier to access the associated concepts because they are already partially activated. When you remember or recall something, you activate a concept, and the related concepts are more easily remembered because they are partially activated. However, the activations do not spread in just one direction. When you remember something, you usually have several routes to get the information you are trying to access, and the more links you have to a concept, the better your chances of remembering.

There are two types of long-term memory: explicit and implicit (Figure 1). Understanding the difference between explicit memory and implicit memory is important because aging, particular types of brain trauma, and certain disorders can impact explicit and implicit memory in different ways. Explicit memories are those we consciously try to remember, recall, and report. For example, if you are studying for your chemistry exam, the material you are learning will be part of your explicit memory. In keeping with the computer analogy, some information in your long-term memory would be like the information you have saved on the hard drive. It is not there on your desktop (your short-term memory), but most of the time you can pull up this information when you want it. Not all long-term memories are strong memories, and some memories can only be recalled using prompts. For example, you might easily recall a fact, such as the capital of the United States, but you might struggle to recall the name of the restaurant at which you had dinner when you visited a nearby city last summer. A prompt, such as that the restaurant was named after its owner, might help you recall the name of the restaurant. Explicit memory is sometimes referred to as declarative memory, because it can be put into words. Explicit memory is divided into episodic memory and semantic memory.

Episodic memory is information about events we have personally experienced (i.e., an episode). For instance, the memory of your last birthday is an episodic memory. Usually, episodic memory is reported as a story. The concept of episodic memory was first proposed about in the 1970s (Tulving, 1972). Since then, Tulving and others have reformulated the theory, and currently scientists believe that episodic memory is memory about happenings in particular places at particular times—the what, where, and when of an event (Tulving, 2002). It involves recollection of visual imagery as well as the feeling of familiarity (Hassabis & Maguire, 2007). Semantic memory is knowledge about words, concepts, and language-based knowledge and facts. Semantic memory is typically reported as facts. Semantic means having to do with language and knowledge about language. For example, answers to the following questions like “what is the definition of psychology” and “who was the first African American president of the United States” are stored in your semantic memory.

Implicit memories are long-term memories that are not part of our consciousness. Although implicit memories are learned outside of our awareness and cannot be consciously recalled, implicit memory is demonstrated in the performance of some task (Roediger, 1990; Schacter, 1987). Implicit memory has been studied with cognitive demand tasks, such as performance on artificial grammars (Reber, 1976), word memory (Jacoby, 1983; Jacoby & Witherspoon, 1982), and learning unspoken and unwritten contingencies and rules (Greenspoon, 1955; Giddan & Eriksen, 1959; Krieckhaus & Eriksen, 1960). Returning to the computer metaphor, implicit memories are like a program running in the background, and you are not aware of their influence. Implicit memories can influence observable behaviors as well as cognitive tasks. In either case, you usually cannot put the memory into words that adequately describe the task. There are several types of implicit memories, including procedural, priming, and emotional conditioning.

Implicit procedural memory is often studied using observable behaviors (Adams, 1957; Lacey & Smith, 1954; Lazarus & McCleary, 1951). Implicit procedural memory stores information about the way to do something, and it is the memory for skilled actions, such as brushing your teeth, riding a bicycle, or driving a car. You were probably not that good at riding a bicycle or driving a car the first time you tried, but you were much better after doing those things for a year. Your improved bicycle riding was due to learning balancing abilities. You likely thought about staying upright in the beginning, but now you just do it. Moreover, you probably are good at staying balanced, but cannot tell someone the exact way you do it. Similarly, when you first learned to drive, you probably thought about a lot of things that you just do now without much thought. When you first learned to do these tasks, someone may have told you how to do them, but everything you learned since those instructions that you cannot readily explain to someone else as the way to do it is implicit memory.

Implicit priming is another type of implicit memory (Schacter, 1992). During priming exposure to a stimulus affects the response to a later stimulus. Stimuli can vary and may include words, pictures, and other stimuli to elicit a response or increase recognition. For instance, some people really enjoy picnics. They love going into nature, spreading a blanket on the ground, and eating a delicious meal. Now, unscramble the following letters to make a word.

What word did you come up with? Chances are good that it was “plate.”

Had you read, “Some people really enjoy growing flowers. They love going outside to their garden, fertilizing their plants, and watering their flowers,” you probably would have come up with the word “petal” instead of plate.

The reason people are more likely to come up with “plate” after reading about a picnic is that plate is associated (linked) with picnic. Plate was primed by activating the semantic network. Similarly, “petal” is linked to flower and is primed by flower. Priming is also the reason you probably said jelly in response to peanut butter.

Implicit emotional conditioning is the type of memory involved in classically conditioned emotion responses (Olson & Fazio, 2001). These emotional relationships cannot be reported or recalled but can be associated with different stimuli. For example, specific smells can cause specific emotional responses for some people. If there is a smell that makes you feel positive and nostalgic, and you don’t know where that response comes from, it is an implicit emotional response. Similarly, most people have a song that causes a specific emotional response. That song’s effect could be an implicit emotional memory (Yang, Xu, Du, Shi, & Fang, 2011).


Spielman, R. M., Jenkins, W. J., & Lovett, M. D. (2020). Psychology 2e. OpenStax. Houston, Texas. Accessed for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology-2e


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