An Overview Of Associative Memory

Updated March 05, 2020

Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Associative memory is a psychological phenomenon which is 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 they're 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

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

On a fundamental level, the process of training and exposing neurons to various elements is quite simple. As the human sense observe 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 couldn't be more 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 robustness and strength of the muscles. The same principle is applicable to how people look after their mental health, what they expose themselves to, and how these things consequentially impact their memory.

Like bodily muscles, the human memory can be strengthened and even used to individuals' advantage if they make the proper decisions and partake in activities which require mental exercise and stimulation. According to Pyschologist 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, if at all positive. 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 which process and store associative memories.


The Paramountcy Of Associative Memory

Although associative memories are often subconscious, they have a wholly significant impact of the lives of each person. 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. Psychology Today largely explains just how great a role associative memories play in human society.

For better or worse, human beings make countless associations each day. Personal experiences, interactions with others, general observations, and information (whether true or false) which 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.



Psychology Today goes on to explain the magnitude of influence which associations play in various social views and perceptions. An ongoing and universal example of the said influence 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.

Different 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, every American citizen is not 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

Like many other mental functions, age significantly impacts the processing and overall quality of various 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 various brain cells in the frontal portion of the brain. These cells produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter which is absolutely paramount for mental functions such as memory and learning. However, the loss of acetylcholine is not the only factor which adversely impacts associative memory and the overall ability to retain various recollections.

With every passing ten years, the hippocampus (a major part of the brain and memory) suffers the loss of 5% of its nerve cells. Five percent may not seem like much, but it truly adds up over time. By the time an individual turns 80 years old, he or she has 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 which 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 that various decisions can wield upon their mental functions. However, they should. Associative memories and other types of recollections are some of the most basic abilities which 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 the long story short, seemingly careless choices or decisions which are made at the spur of the moment can have longterm impacts which may not become 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. Thankfully, Healthline affirms that the following activities will 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 which should be cherished and retained. However, an openness and willingness to learn, grow, and receive updated information is of equal importance. No one should even 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 may be incorrect or no longer valid.

Due to the automatic and subconscious nature of associative memories, they can often be more influential than some people realize. These recollections have a tendency 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 individuals in a trusted network of individuals to communicate with can be a therapist or counselor. This is largely because of the fact that people in this field are trained and specialize in providing guidance and advice. This is a top priority of the entire BetterHelp team. We realize that life, associative memories and all, comes with many ups and downs. Nobody deserves to go through these things alone. Everyone needs someone to confide in.

Ultimately, everyone should determine whether or not confiding in a therapist or counselor is the right decision for them. Nevertheless, BetterHelp will always be available to those in need of assistance.

You can contact us at anytime by clicking here.

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