What are the benefits of priming memory?

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated February 8, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

One form of memory training people use is priming. Priming can be a tool used to increase memory capacity, strengthen the brain, or decrease distressing symptoms. It may require practice to master over time.

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Learn how priming could help improve your memory

What is priming?

Priming is a memory technique that involves implicit memory, conscious awareness, and unconscious mental connections. When priming occurs, a memory may trigger a response or partial activation to certain words, images, or sensory inputs that we associate with a previous event, memory, or idea. When priming memory, certain stimulus influences (like scent, sound, or image) are closely linked with specific memories and subsequent stimuli. Priming can be used as a technique or may occur on its own.  

For example, if you think of the color "yellow," you may think of yellow items, such as bananas, rubber ducks, or sunflowers. If you think of a place you used to visit, you might associate it with certain relationships, people, or memories. These memories may sometimes be associated with smells, images, colors, sensations, or words related to the memory. 

When utilizing priming in psychology, you might train your brain to remember bits of information by associating them with your senses or repeated stimuli. Many people experience the most substantial level of priming through verbal or visual cues. However, some may experience it through touch, smell, or taste. 

Positive priming

Priming can be done positively when you use stimuli to remember information faster than you might without clues. This is called positive priming. For example, if you try to think of a positive memory in general, you might go through many memories before finding one to stick on. However, if someone tells you to think of a memory you associate with flowers, you might be able to pinpoint a positive memory quickly, such as your wedding day or the day your partner bought you roses. 

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Negative priming

Negative priming may be a conscious or unconscious occurrence. It may refer to any stimulus that makes your brain's processing slow. Negative priming often involves previously ignored stimuli. For example, if you read a list where specific colors are associated with certain words and then read a new list where the same colors are associated with different words in a different order, your brain might struggle to make connections and understand the list.  

Conceptual and perceptual priming

Perpetual and conceptual priming is based on different stimuli in a semantic form. Conceptual priming may be based on the stimuli' meaning. For example, with conceptual priming, you might relate the words "armchair" and "sofa" as they are both types of furniture. You might also relate "apples" and "oranges" as they are often used together in conversation and are both types of fruit. 

Perceptual priming is often done by matching stimuli from one sense to another. For example, with perceptual priming, you might connect visualization with verbal sounds or sounds with memory. One instance where this might be apparent is by comparing the sound of a bell ringing to a photo memory of being in school as a teen. The bell sound might remind you of your prior experiences. 

Semantic priming

Semantic priming often uses words to connect two different semantics in a logical or linguistic way. For example, with semantic priming, you may connect the word "cat" to the word "lion" because they are similar species. Or, you might connect the word "bat" with "bad," as they have mostly the same letters and lengths. This strategy might be used to remember strings of words within the brain. 

Abbreviations can also be an example of semantic priming. For example, if you think of "psych," you might associate it with "psychology." This type of priming is often used with words, abbreviations, and slang terms. Individuals might use it to remember the semantics of their language. 

Practicing semantic priming might improve your reaction time and increase processing speed. Word exercises could be beneficial for those looking to increase recall and better their memory. 

Repetitive priming 

Repetitive priming is a type of positive priming often used to speed up the recall of a person's mind. With repetition priming, each time you experience stimuli related to a type of memory you're trying to retain, you may try repeating a positive priming exercise until you feel the information has stuck. 

Response priming

Response priming often involves motor control and visuals. You may do so through associating action or response to stimuli. For example, someone may associate a particular muscle movement, dive, or jump during a sports game with success in the game. Over time, muscle movements may cause muscle memory, a form of memory you may not be consciously aware of and can prime your muscles to act. A common form of this is playing an instrument. Someone might remember how to play a song on the piano if they've played it many times before, even if they haven't played it in years and forgot the notes. 

Associative priming

Associative priming may involve associating certain situations, factors, or characteristics with words, images, sounds, or other stimuli. For example, with associative priming, "dog" and "cat" might be associated with memories of animals, pets, or family. With associative or contextual priming, you might read a piece of text and use contextual clues to associate one word with another.

People might use this type of priming when learning a new language. They may remember specific prefixes of common words in their primary language that connect with the new language and use them to discern the meaning of the word, even if they haven't studied it before. 

Kindness priming

Kindness priming might be seen when someone experiences a positive experience connected to an object or situation. For example, if someone offers you a pencil when you break yours in class, you might associate that person, class, or pencil with kindness or positivity. You might also associate the pencil with luck. 

Ways to build priming

There are a few ways to build priming. Many individuals use sequencing to associate words with other words, situations, sounds, or examples. For example, if you're trying to remember a long sequence of numbers, you might associate a mental image of an animal with the first letter of each number. You could associate "one" with "owl" and "two" with "turtle." Priming suggests that by activating certain information units, related or connected units also become active. Finding a type of mnemonic that works for you could help you with the priming process. Recognition memory tests are often used to help individuals with priming, and you may remember words or situations after forgetting them through this technique.  

If you want to remember a meaningful experience with a person, consider taking note of the smell of the grass, the feel of their hand, how it feels to sit with them, and the emotions you're experiencing. If you take note of all of your senses, you may be more likely to remember the experience. 

You can also try increasing your priming ability by looking at an incomplete photo. Every minute, reveal another small piece of the photo until you can guess what it is. If you return to the exercise later, you may feel more able to guess a photo through contextual clues from the last time you completed an exercise. A memory coach may be able to support you in this process. 

Is priming beneficial? 

Positive and negative priming can benefit some individuals. Using contextual priming could help those experiencing amnesia or dementia remember a situation. For example, many dementia patients respond positively to music because it triggers an auditory priming queue to remind them of memories, people, places, and ideas. 

Some individuals use priming at school or work to study a new subject. If you want to improve your implicit memory, you may benefit from priming, whether through positive, perceptual, contextual, conceptual, or masked priming. Repeated practice can be most beneficial. If you're unsure how to start, consider speaking to a professional with experience in memory, memory tests, and memory improvement techniques.

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Learn how priming could help improve your memory

Counseling options 

Consider reaching out to a counselor to learn more about memory exercises and priming effects. Additionally, if you're experiencing struggles regarding memory or cognitive ability, counseling could provide you with the resources and techniques to improve your processing abilities and target the underlying causes. Memory loss may sometimes be a symptom of an underlying mental health condition. 

Many individuals opt for online counseling for modern psychological and mental health treatment. With online counseling, your therapist may be able to connect with you via phone, video chat, or live messaging sessions. You can also attend counseling from any location with an internet connection, making online counseling available. Additionally, research suggests that internet-based treatment modalities are often more effective than traditional in-person therapy.

Takeaway

Priming is one memory technique you might use to remember strings of information, associate situations with your five senses, and learn about the brain-body connection. If you're interested in learning more about how priming works or how to improve memory, consider reaching out to a counselor. 

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