Procedural Memory

Without procedural memory, humans would be able to learn very little in their lifetimes. This type of memory is what allows us to eventually learn to ride a bike after many lessons with dad in the driveway, how to hold a pencil, or how to solve a particular type of puzzle. Our procedural memory helps us learn to do things. The interesting part about this type of memory, though, is that we rarely have to think about it, especially if we’re using a skill we’ve used many times before.

Think about it: when was the last time you had to consciously remember how to hold your pen to form the letter A? When was the last time you got on a bike and had to consciously tell yourself to put your feet on the pedals, push off, and keep pedaling so you didn’t lose your balance? The last time you did these things was probably when you were learning these new skills – when they weren’t yet a part of your procedural memory.

Without procedural memory, everything you did would take twice as long. As I sit here typing this post about procedural memory, I don’t have to think about which keys to type for certain words. I don’t even have to look down at the keys to see where they are because my fingers just seem to “know” where to go. Of course, it’s not my fingers that know, but my brain. I’ve typed so many articles over the years that my procedural memory for this event is solid, and I don’t even have to think about it. In fact, when I find myself thinking too much about my typing, I end up either writing nonsense because I can’t focus on both typing and choosing the words to string together or making lots of typing mistakes because I’m interrupting my procedural memory from just doing its thing.

How We Get Procedural Memory

One of the ways that we know we have memories for procedures that are different from our explicit memories – such as memories of what we need to do today or memories of our eleventh birthday parties – is that amnesiacs still have procedural memories. It’s very rare to find someone who has lost all long-term explicit memories but doesn’t still remember how to walk, talk, use a pen, and even spell most words! Isn’t it amazing that your brain is so complex that you can forget your own name while still remembering how to spell words you learned way back in first grade?

Procedural memory is a form of long-term memory that is learned by repeated activity. Just like you can move certain information, like the names of all the planets, into your long-term memory by repeating those names over and over again, you can learn to do new procedures without thinking about them by repeating those procedures over and over again.

Procedural learning is essential for all human beings from a very young age. Babies have to learn to do everything that isn’t instinctual – such as walking, grasping, and moving their arms and legs at will. As children, we learn to hold a crayon and to ride a bike, and as adults, we learn to type. Driving, putting together parts at a factory, running with proper form, and making scrambled eggs are all procedural memories that people can learn over time.

Without these memories, everything we did would take at least twice as long, because we would have to stop and think about the next step. Also, not having any procedural memories would preclude our world’s favorite way of functioning – multi-tasking! If you had to think too hard about how to chew your gum or drive your car, you wouldn’t be able to do anything else while carrying out that task. I don’t know about you, but that would pose a huge problem for me, indeed!