We’ve mentioned our memory, and the different aspects of it that allow us to learn and store information we pick up. But perhaps all this talk about different memory types has got you a bit confused, or maybe you’re interested to go deeper and understand more about this process - starting that learning now! So let’s go through it in a bit more detail.
Episodic memory is the cognitive domain that enables us to recall past events associated with a current context. For example, if we went to the cinema last week, we can recall the film, the time of the showing, who we went with, what we had to eat and drink and how it made us feel when we left. The power of having a strong episodic memory is that it allows us to use and adapt what we have learnt from past events and apply them to similar situations we might have to face in the future. This is our wisdom.
The long-term storage
Episodic memory is one of two subdivisions of long-term memory, where all of the information we have collected is stored.
The other subdivision is semantic memory. This is our knowledge base, of factual knowledge about the world. This includes the meaning of words, as well as rules, concepts, and other information we have learnt.
What makes your semantic memory different from your episodic memory, is that our semantic memories are not tied to any context of where or when these memories were made. For example, we can recall that Paris is the capital of France, but it is unlikely that we can remember exactly when and where we learnt this information.
To recall a new memory, we must first encode it in our brain. Secondly, we must store the memory, lay it down and associate it with other similar memories. This ensures our memory is integrated with the networks of previous knowledge. Finally, we can retrieve a memory, often through an integrated process whereby one memory prompts the recall of another.
And so, our memories are like a file we store on our computer: if we don’t provide them with an easily identifiable name, and we don’t store them in an appropriate folder, we risk being unable to find them in the future.
Do we struggle to remember things?
A weak episodic memory may be put down to failures at any of the three stages of the memory process and not just the retrieval process. Poor memory could be a result of the initial encoding and storing processes. So, by thinking of ways to improve the first two processes, we will find it much easier to retrieve information when we want to. Paying attention during the first two processes will help our memory. Attaching an emotional or sensory element to our memories can also make them easier to remember and help our learning. If we are passionate about a subject, it means more to us and has a greater emotional impact on us. If we can find passion in our work it will help our learning processes.
Tips for improving your episodic memory
Pay attention to details – Actively noticing the details in any situation, especially a new one, is better than passive thinking, which can lead to distraction. For example, some of us may attend a conference or concert and spend a lot of time recording the event on our phones rather than taking part in it. Try to immerse yourself in events or activities rather than being a spectator. Ask yourself questions about the event to fix it in your mind.
Use emotions! – Try to link information you want to remember to a particular emotion, person, time, or location. This helps to make an experience more vivid in your memory, making it easier to recall.
Tidy up! – It is always more difficult to find something when you are looking in an untidy space. The same can be said for your memory. Make sure all your new information is stored in the appropriate place. Think about associations that link together different memories. Start to imagine your episodic memory as shelves in a storage room.
Use it or lose it – Make sure to revisit your critical memories periodically to keep them in good order and fresh in your mind. Talk through them to others or write them up as blogs or articles. We can also think about how to apply these experiences in different situations.
How does it taste? – When you are trying to retrieve the details of a memory, try to remember the sensations you felt at the time you experienced it. For example, the taste, smell and sound you experienced, it might not seem relevant information to be retrieved, but these senses are powerful tools that can make our memories more vivid, making it easier to recall key details of the situation.
Before you go: when we have painful memories it can help to talk these out with other people, sharing your pain with them, but also acquiring a new reflection on them that may help you to rationally overcome the pain. Try not to ruminate on the past unless the experience is helpful to you. Try not to bury a painful experience as it could come back to haunt you; process the pain, sit with it, acknowledge it, work through it (the help from a professional here can be invaluable).