An Overview Of Associative Memory

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated April 11, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Associative memory is a psychological phenomenon defined as "the ability to learn and remember the relationship between unrelated items." This form of memory takes place very frequently and often subconsciously. Associative memories are what allow individuals to make certain connections and inferences even when those connections are not clearly explained or spelled out. Like all variations of remembrances, the quality of one's associative memory plays a considerable role in the quality of their life, mental health, and overall wellbeing.

Associative Memory Explained

According to Science Daily, various scientific probes and studies have determined that the roots of associative memories lie in sensory neurons within each person's visual cortex. In essence, the aforementioned neurons must be trained and provided enough exposure to different elements before they can make the connections that become associative memories.

On a fundamental level, the process of training and exposing neurons to various elements is quite simple. As a human observes features of their environment (such as colors, objects, smells, tastes, etc.), these observations are subsequently transferred to the brain via unique paths: the dorsal path and ventral path. While the dorsal path is especially receptive to motion and space, the ventral path notably picks up on form-related information.

Utilizing Associative Memory

When most people think of the various styles and forms of memory, they generally regard these functions and phenomena as mental functions that are set in stone. However, this common perception is inaccurate. The memory is to the mind what muscles are to the body. How each person exercises and takes care of themselves will largely impact the muscles’ robustness and strength. The same principle applies to how people look after their mental health, what they expose themselves to, and how these things consequentially impact their memory.

Like bodily muscles, human memory can be strengthened and even used to an individual’s advantage if they make the proper decisions and partake in activities that require mental exercise and stimulation. According to Psychologist World, people can increase the quality of their associative memories by noting certain features linked to the person, object, or place and then making purposeful mental attachments. Some examples of this include connecting specific names to already saved mental images (Michael – microphone, Neil – a kneeling person) and practicing repetitive use, when possible. The latter especially comes in handy when meeting a new friend. Frequently using their name during conversation engrains the frequency into the brain; also, taking notes of various features of the individual (such as skin tone, hair color, smell, etc.) further exercises the parts of the brain that process and store associative memories.

The Paramountcy Of Associative Memory

Although associative memories are often subconscious, they have a wholly significant impact on each person’s life. Processed mental associations impact beliefs, actions, decisions, prejudices, and how one sees the world. These various facets of life are often intertwined and, under the right circumstances, can make or break someone. 

For better or worse, human beings make countless associations each day. Personal experiences, interactions with others, general observations, and information (whether true or false) that has been learned over time strongly impact various associations and subsequent inferences. For instance, a person who observes common behaviors amongst certain groups of individuals may consequentially assume that all people in this group conduct themselves in a similar manner.

Despite the flaws in this manner of thinking, it can—and often does—occur. However, like many things in life, associative memories are not set in stone. They can be learned and unlearned. Individuals possess the power to have new experiences, learn new information, and therefore, draw new conclusions, and update previously solidified associations.


An ongoing and universal example of the magnitude of influence that associations play in various social views and perceptions comes in the form of stereotypes. Stereotypes are defined as "over-generalized beliefs about a particular category of people." Certain stereotypes are more prevalent than others, but at a base level, these over-generalized beliefs are associative memories, regardless of how erroneous they may be.

Some of the most common and often incorrect stereotypes include but are not limited to the following beliefs:

  • Women are more emotional than men.
  • Americans are hyper materialistic.
  • Politicians are corrupt.

Stereotypes are developed for various reasons, and in certain contexts or situations they may be accurate. Nevertheless, overgeneralized associative memories become problematic when they are applied to whole groups of individuals based on the actions of a select few or even a sizable percentage. Not all women are overly emotional, not every American is materialistic, and not all politicians are greedy and corrupt. There are many logical, clear-thinking women, just as there are countless minimalistic Americans, and well-meaning politicians who genuinely wish to make a difference in the world.

Associative Memory And Age

As with many other mental functions, age significantly impacts the processing and overall quality of associative memories. On a basic level, age does tend to prompt the decline of one's memory. How Stuff Works explains that age's adverse impact on associative memory is largely because as people age, they lose brain cells in the frontal portion of the brain. These cells produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is essential for mental functions such as memory and learning. However, the loss of acetylcholine is not the only factor that adversely impacts associative memory and the overall ability to retain various recollections.

Every 10 years, the hippocampus (a major part of the brain and memory) loses 5% of its nerve cells. Five percent may not seem like much, but it adds up. By the time an individual turns 80 years old, they have likely lost 20% of the nerve cells within their hippocampus. However, despite the loss of acetylcholine and hippocampus nerve cells, each person has the ability to make various choices that will either better or worsen the quality of their memory in their later years.

When people are young, they don't always consider the consequences of decisions on their mental functions. However, these are important things to consider. Associative memories and other types of recollection are some of the most basic abilities that allow people to enjoy life and maintain careers, relationships, and lifestyles. Therefore, acute knowledge of what harms and helps the human memory is absolutely critical.

According to WebMD, some of the most common things that negatively impact memory are as follows: prescribed medication, over-the-counter medication, lack of sleep, stress, excessive drinking, drug use, poor nutrition, depression, strokes, head injuries, and even certain sexually transmitted diseases. To make a long story short, seemingly careless choices or decisions that are made at the spur of the moment can have long-term impacts not evident until later in life. This is why taking good care of oneself matters so greatly.

While the aforementioned things do have the ability to negatively impact associative and other memories, there is an assortment of lifestyle choices that can improve mental functions, especially as people age. Healthline affirms that the following activities may prove beneficial for individuals who are serious about improving their memory:

  • Cutting back on the consumption of sugar.
  • Meditating, exercising, getting an adequate amount of sleep.
  • Reducing alcohol consumption.
  • Engaging in mentally stimulating activities, such as crossword puzzles, sudoku, and brain-training phone apps.

A Final Word

Associative memories are significantly impactful. The ability to make connections and inferences between unrelated items is a gift that should be cherished and retained. However, an openness and willingness to learn, grow, and receive updated information are of equal importance. Of course, no one should become so attached to associative memories that they are closed off to a new perspective, updated information, or even the possibility that previously concluded associations might be incorrect or no longer valid.

Due to associative memories’ automatic and subconscious nature, they can often be more influential than some people realize. These recollections tend to impact the emotional state, experiences, and beliefs of human beings. Sometimes this is good, but other times the impact can be harmful or adverse. For this reason, having a trusted network of people to communicate with is of utmost importance.

In life, you will likely discover that one of the greatest supports in a trusted network of individuals can be a therapist or counselor. This is largely because people in this field are trained and specialize in providing guidance and advice.

Online counseling is growing in popularity and research shows it is an effective way to explore therapeutic techniques that can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. This study found that online therapy was even more effective than traditional in-person sessions, with 100 percent of participants in the online group showing continued symptom reduction three months after treatment. On the other hand, individuals in the face-to-face group showed “significantly worsened depressive symptoms” over the same period.

BetterHelp is committed to pairing individuals with counselors they can trust in a convenient phone, email, text, or video format that makes it so easy to schedule a time to talk. Counselors on BetterHelp are certified by their state's professional board and highly skilled: every therapist has at least three years and 1,000 hours of hands-on experience. Consider these BetterHelp therapist reviews from people like you.

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