Procedural 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 procedural memory?

Procedural memory is characterized as a lower conscious or unconscious memory for performing certain actions. Procedural memories are unconsciously retrieved when they are needed or wanted and are generally considered to be a combination of both mental activity and cognitive or motor skills. Examples of procedural memory include tying shoes, reading, driving a car and even more complicated activities such as piloting an aircraft. Procedural memories do not require conscious control. Procedural memories are a type of long term memory which are processed and created through the repetition of an activity multiple times until the activity can be performed using unconscious memory.

Typically, procedural memory improves with practice and increased numbers of repetitions. The more the activity is repeated or practiced, the stronger the procedural memory for that activity. For example: An individual is learning how to operate an automobile. When they have driven the automobile three times, their procedural memory for the actions involved in this activity—such as coordinating eye movement and hand movement when turning onto a road—is likely to be present but not overly strong. They may need to still consciously focus on performing the activity, which in this case is driving the automobile. On the other hand, when they have been driving for 5 years, their procedural memory for this activity is going to be much stronger and not require conscious recall.

A brief history of procedural memory

The first known study on a concept similar to what we know understand as procedural memory occurred in 1804, in a work written by Maine de Birain, which described a concept called “Mechanical Memory,” or the memory required to perform physical actions such as walking, working, etc. It was not until the 1890 publication Principles of Psychology written by William James that the idea of a separation between memory and habit–this issue was further explored throughout the end of the 19th and through the whole 20th century. In the 1970s, dissociation between declarative memory and procedural memory occurred, resulting in what we now consider two types of long term memory. Declarative memory was characterized as knowing “what,” while procedural memory was characterized as knowing “how.” In 1962, a study was done which demonstrated that a patient with severe amnesia could still form procedural memories, even though her declarative memory–or “what” she knew–was damaged. This indicated that there was a difference in how the mind processed these two types of long-term memory, which were not—as believed before—intrinsically connected.

The four acquisitioned phases of procedural memory skills

In order to acquire a skill, practice or experience must occur. However, simply repeating a task or action–such as sewing, building an object, driving a car, etc.–does not mean that a skill will actually be acquired. Skill acquisition only occurs when behavior is changed due to practice of that skill, which is commonly referred to as learning. For example: Someone who is learning how to cook well will not acquire that skill simply by repeatedly cooking food. They will only acquire the skill by practicing until their behavior–or how they cook–changes.

The process of acquiring skills and turning them into procedural memories can be broken down into three stages or phrases: cognitive phase, associative phase, and the autonomous phase. These phases are the common model with researchers in the field of psychology refers to as the “stages of learning,” although other models–such as Tadlock’s Predictive Cycle–have also been proposed. The three stages of learning were first proposed by Fitts in 1954.

The cognitive phase is the first phase in the stages of learning and refers to the phase during which individuals understand what a skill is, how it works, and how it can be learned or acquired. In order to do this, most people break down the skill into separate parts which are then combined in order to correctly perform the skill or action. For example: An individual learning how to drive a car will often take a driver’s training course which teaches about the principles of driving and slowly builds their knowledge until they are ready to practice driving.

The associative phase of the three stages of learning is characterized by practicing the skill and actions involved in the skill until the response, or behavior, of the skill changes. As the individual continues to practice the skill, certain actions involved in the skill are learned and become automated and no longer need to be consciously recalled. For example: An individual learning how to drive will, after receiving basic education on the topic, practice driving a car. The more they practice driving, the more experienced they will be and the more likely it is that they will have begun to learn this skill. As they gain more experience, they will also not have to recall every action consciously—they may, to use a specific explain, know how to shift gears or use the gas pedal correctly without consciously thinking about how to use them.

The final phase of the three stages of learning is the autonomous phase. This final phase is characterized by the perfection of skill acquisition. In this stage, the individuals’ mind will differentiate between important and unimportant stimuli and how those stimuli could potentially affect their actions or their usage of a certain skill until performing the skill becomes an unconscious, autonomous behavior. For example: Someone who has been driving for several years will know how to drive autonomously without having to directly recall the information necessary to know how to drive.


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