Semantic Memory

Semantic memory is one of the most important forms of memory because it’s what allows you to function in everyday life. Your semantic memory is what allows you to know what a dog is when someone says that word, even if they aren’t referring to a specific dog that you have a real memory of.

Your semantic memory also stores information about words – what they mean, how they look in print, how to spell them, etc. Without semantic memory, you wouldn’t be able to communicate with other people. Even if you could say and hear words, you wouldn’t know what they meant on a common cultural level.

Separate Parts of Memory

The human memory is incredibly rich and complex, and you have different types of long term memory. Besides semantic memory, you also have an episodic memory. In the normal brain, episodic and semantic memory works together to help us make sense of our world and our place in it.

Essentially, your semantic memory can be seen as an “average” of your episodic memory, which, as you can probably guess, is your memory of specific events, episodes, or facts that have occurred in your life. When someone tells you to think of the word “baby” you know automatically what that word means, even if you aren’t thinking of a specific baby. Your conception of the word “baby” is built out of all your episodic memories – various specific instances where you have seen babies, had a baby, read about babies, or whatever else. If someone had never seen or read about a baby, they wouldn’t have episodic memories to make up this semantic memory of what that particular word meant.

One interesting thing about episodic and semantic memory is that you can lose one without losing the other. Some people with damage to certain parts of the brain lose their semantic memories, but they still remember who they are, identify specific people in their lives, and have long-term memories from their own lives. Amnesiacs, on the other hand, don’t remember specific episodes from their own lives, but they do remember basic concepts – like what dogs and cats are.

For children, this type of memory is absolutely crucial, and it’s still forming. Little kids have trouble understanding, for instance, that a tiny Pomeranian and a huge Greyhound are both dogs until they encounter several dogs of different shapes and sizes and start to understand the common characteristics that make these animals dogs. This is why a child might call her own dog “doggie” but not be able to identify a dog in a picture book that looks very different from her own. Eventually, she’ll encounter enough dogs – in the real world, in movies, and in books – that she’ll be able to identify most dogs for what they are. She’ll have semantic memories of what dogs are based on the actual encounters she’s had with them.

Can you imagine living your life without a semantic memory? It would mean you couldn’t ever communicate with other people in abstract terms. You would always be referring to your own dog, house, baby, or cousin when you used those words, which could get very confusing in the midst of a conversation.

While scientists are still learning more about this type of memory and how it works, I, for one, am glad that it’s something humans are born with the ability to form! Without it, just think about where we’d be – in our conversations, in our learning, and in our everyday lives.