An Overview Of Associative Memory

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Associative memory refers to the ability to learn and recall relationships between unrelated things. For instance, you may associate the smell of freshly baked biscuits with your childhood kitchen, or you may be able to remember the taste of an unusual fruit you tried once upon seeing it. Associative memories are often subconscious and can contribute to stereotypes, but they are not necessarily set in stone. Associative memory may decline with age, certain medications, alcohol and drug use, and other factors. Read on to learn more about associative memory, including how it works, why it’s important, and how to improve it.

Associative memory can impact our emotions and experiences

Associative memory explained

Associative memories are formed frequently and subconsciously. They allow individuals to make and then recall connections and inferences, even when those connections are not clearly explained or spelled out. Like all types of memory, the quality of one's associative memory can play a considerable role in their quality of life, mental health, and overall well-being.

Research has determined that sensory neurons within the visual cortex of the brain are likely responsible for this type of memory. It seems that these neurons may need to be “trained” through enough exposure to different elements before they can make the connections that become associative memories. This process is quite simple on a fundamental level: As a person observes features of their environment, these observations are transferred to the brain via two paths. One is the dorsal path, which is especially receptive to motion and space, and the other is the ventral path, which mainly picks up form-related information.

The role of associative memory

Although associative memories are often subconscious, they can have a significant impact on a person’s life. Processed mental associations may affect beliefs, prejudices, actions, decisions, and how one sees the world and others. 

Humans generally make countless associations each day. Personal experiences, interactions with others, general observations, and information (whether true/accurate or not) learned over time can strongly impact associations and subsequent inferences. For instance, a person who observes common behaviors amongst certain groups of individuals may consequently assume that all people in this group conduct themselves in a similar manner. 

Despite the clear potential flaws in this manner of thinking, it can—and often does—occur. However, note that associative memories are not necessarily set in stone; they may be learned and unlearned. Individuals in general are capable of having new experiences, learning new information, drawing new conclusions, and updating previously solidified associations.


Associative memory and age

As is the case with many other cognitive functions, age can significantly impact the processing and overall quality of associative memories. Age's adverse impact on associative memory may largely be due to the loss of cells in the frontal portion of the brain as people grow older. These brain cells typically produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that’s thought to be essential for mental functions like memory and learning. In addition, by the time an individual turns 80 years old, they have likely also lost 20% of the nerve cells within their hippocampus—which can play a large role in memory. However, despite these structural and mechanical losses, individuals can still make choices that may improve or worsen the quality of their memory in their later years.

Improving associative memory

Associative memories and other types of recollection help allow people to enjoy life and maintain careers, relationships, and lifestyles. While some people may classify themselves as having “a good memory” or “a bad memory” in general, the truth is that memory is like a muscle and can be improved with use and practice.

Just as a person who spends a lot of time exercising will typically have stronger muscles than someone who doesn’t, those who intentionally work on strengthening their associative memory will generally be able to. Doing so simply requires intentionality about noticing associations around you and practicing repetition to help yourself retain those associations. 

For example, when meeting someone new at a party, associating their name with a concept and then using their name out loud a time or two throughout the evening can help you remember it. For example, you might remember that a certain, soft-spoken person’s name was Mike because it would’ve been easier to hear them in the loud room if their voice were amplified by a microphone. 

Another key factor in improving memory, in general, can be to avoid or get treatment for things that can damage it. Some of the most common factors that can negatively impact memory include:

  • Certain medications
  • Lack of sleep
  • Stress
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Drug use
  • Poor nutrition
  • Excessive sugar intake
  • Depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Strokes
  • Head injuries 
  • Certain sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis

In other words, making healthy lifestyle choices over time—including seeking the proper care for symptoms of any mental and/or physical health conditions—is another way you can help support good memory function.

Associative memory can impact our emotions and experiences

Seeking therapy for memory challenges

Making healthy lifestyle choices can play a key role in preserving and strengthening associative memory capabilities. However, a willingness to learn, grow, and receive updated information can be equally important. Therapy is a practice that may help an individual with both of these abilities. If chronic stress or a mental health condition is contributing to memory troubles, a therapist can help address these as well. 

For those who are nervous about the prospect of meeting with a provider in person or who don’t have many providers to choose from in their area, online therapy may represent a convenient alternative. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Research suggests that online therapy can be “a viable alternative” to traditional, in-office sessions in many cases. That means you can typically choose whichever format feels most comfortable for you.


The ability to learn and remember relationships between unrelated items is referred to as associative memory. This type of memory is usually subconscious, and most stereotypes can be rooted in associative memories. Still, it is possible to change these memories by learning new information. Associative memory often worsens as we age, and it can also be negatively impacted by depression, lack of sleep, stress, and excessive substance use. If you’re experiencing difficulties with associative memory, seeking the support of a therapist may be helpful.

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