Declarative Memory

What is memory?

In the field of psychology, memory is characterized as the process by which the human mind encodes stores and retrieves information. Information is first encoded through a process involving sensory information. It is then stored, which means that the information is maintained over a consistent period of time. Finally, the information is retrieved from storage consciously or unconsciously. The two common types of memory are short term memory and long term memory. Short term memory refers to memory which has a retrieval period of up to one minute, while long term memory can be retrieved for years afterward.

What is declarative memory?

Declarative memory is one type of long term memory, or memory which—in layman’s terms—recalls information or experiences that occurred several minutes after they happened.  Long term memories may be recalled for varying lengths of time, such as minutes, hours, days, months—or even years. The stronger the memory, the more likely it is that it can be recalled with clarity and detail. Declarative memory, which is sometimes instead referred to as explicit memory, refers to memories which are consciously recalled by the mind–such as facts, names, and knowledge, rather than unconsciously memories such as skills or habits.

The two types of declarative memory

There are two different types of declarative memory: semantic memory and episodic memory.Semantic memories are memories of general knowledge which are not dependent on personal experience. Facts, figures and regular knowledge are all types of semantic memories. Examples of semantic memories include: types of food, the names of countries and cities, vocabulary definitions, and mathematical equations. Research on semantic memories is always expanding, but some research indicates that some people are prone to better semantic memory than others, which would partially explain why some people are simply more adept at remembering facts and figures than people who have received a similar education.

Episodic memories, on the other hand, are memories of events or experiences which are dependent on personal experiences. Episodic memories are all related to personal experiences such as attending a lecture, taking a trip overseas, or meeting a particular person. When someone is thinking about a vacation they took several years before, they are retrieving episodic memory through “reliving” that experience. Episodic memories, depending on their strength, often involve much more abstract or personal details than semantic memories. For example, someone recalling a vacation to a French villa several years before might remember the smell of freshly baked bread or the feel of the cobblestones underneath their feet.

A brief history of declarative memory

One of the earliest studies on memory can be found in Aristotle’s treatise, On the Soul, which compares memory of the human mind to a blank slate. Aristotle believed that humans are born with a “blank slate” mind that gets filled over time with their personal experiences and personal gains in knowledge. Although research on human memory continued through the next 2000 years and made great strides in the late 19th century with the work of Ebbinghaus, it is not until the 20th century that leaps regarding the distinction between short term and long term memory, as well as the distinction between the types of declarative memory have been extensively researched.

The work of Endel Tulving in the 1960s and 1970s proved crucial to our current understanding of declarative memory. Tulving proposed that declarative long term memory could be divided into two forms, episodic and semantic, and that these two forms–although similar–operated on a different level. Since Tulving’s study, further advancements in the field of declarative memory have been made, although there is still much to be learned about how and why declarative memory works the way that it does.

Factors which can affect declarative memory

Like all forms of memory, there are several known factors which can affect declarative memory—how it is stored, how well it is remembered, etc.

One of the most influential factors on declarative memory is stress. Stress can have a potentially large impact on how declarative memories are formed, which memories are formed, how well they are remembered as well as how easily they are recalled. Research has shown that stress impairs the formation of declarative memories, especially semantic memories, and makes it more difficult for them to not only form but to be recalled with clarity as well. One such study involved participants going through three separateresearch phrases. The first phase required the participants to memorize a series of words. For the second phase, the participants were separated into two groups. The first group had to undertake a stressful situation–public speaking–while the second group had to undertake a non-stressful situation–a private task. The third and final phase required all of the participants to remember the words that they have memorized in the first phase. The participants who had to undergo a stressful situation showed poorer recall of the words and thus a poorer performance when it came to forming declarative memories.

Some researchers in the field of memory study believe that stress can impact both types of declarative memory, both semantic and episodic. While research on the subject tends to focus on semantic memory, such as vocabulary or phrases, because it is easier to conduct independent studies in this manner, research on conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder indicates that stress may impact episodic memories as well. While stress has been proven to affect semantic memory by making factual and knowledge recall difficult or impaired, stress has been shown to possibly affect episodic memory in a radically different way—rather than making episodic memory more difficult to recall, stress, especially extreme stress which results in post-traumatic stress disorder, can make episodic memory more intense and easier to recall. Those with post-traumatic stress disorder often report reliving episodic memories with extreme detail, often to the point where the memory seems real and “live,” rather than in the past. Unlike its effect on semantic memory, stress appears to affect episodic memory by making the memory stronger and—in many cases—more traumatic.

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