What Procedural Memory Is And Why It’s Important

By Nicole Beasley |Updated April 8, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

Procedural memory definition is fairly simple on the surface. This is a part of your long-term memory that is responsible for remembering how to do things. When you can type, ride a bike, or drive a car without consciously thinking about how you are doing it, you are using your procedural memory.

Long-term memory is divided into many subtypes of memory, and procedural memory is one of these. Procedural memory is a subtype of implicit memory, which means that it is automatic. You don't have to consciously think or actively recall the information in your procedural memory. By definition procedural memory requires no conscious thought.

One of the ways you can tell if you are using procedural memory is to think about a task and how you would describe it. It is very difficult to explain how you do things that you do from procedural memory. For example, without using scientific explanations, it can be very difficult to explain to someone how to walk and maintain balance.

Procedural Memory Development

The parts of the brain that are used in developing procedural memory are the prefrontal cortex, the parietal cortex, and the cerebellum. These parts of the brain all work together to allow for coordinated and timed movements as you learn to perform a task. Once a task is formed, it is recalled automatically through procedural memory via the basal ganglia and cerebellum.

Primarily procedural memory is developed through practice and trial and error. Repeated actions must reinforce synapses in the brain to develop the memory. When you first learn how to do something, you make mistakes, and you have to think about what you are doing really. But, once the skill is learned, your procedural memory stores that information and recalls it automatically without conscious thought.

Procedural Memory Examples

Many different examples could be used to describe procedural memory. While some things are common among everyone like walking and talking, most people will vary on what they have stored in their procedural memory. It all depends on what you have learned to do.

Some common examples of procedural memory include:

  • Typing
  • Riding a bicycle
  • Driving a car
  • Chopping an onion
  • Playing piano
  • Swimming
  • Climbing stairs
  • Sanding wood for carpenters
  • Smoking
  • Handwriting in print or cursive
  • Answering a phone

You can probably come up with many more examples of when you use procedural memory that is unique to what you have learned during your lifetime. If it is something that you do not have to think about how to do it, you are using procedural memory.

Things That Affect Procedural Memory

Several medical conditions and disorders can affect procedural memory. However, it is important to note that the disorders that commonly cause memory loss may not affect procedural memory. Procedural memory is often the most intact in most cases of memory loss. Still, it is possible to have problems with procedural memory loss in advanced or severe cases of these medical conditions.

Sleep Hygiene

In recent years more studies have been done looking into how much sleep plays a role in memory. The findings have been nearly unanimous that sleep hygiene plays an important role in your brain's ability to function properly. One study looked specifically at the procedural memory and the role of early sleep or late nocturnal sleep.

In the study, groups of people were tested on procedural memory tasks with no sleep, with early sleep, and with late sleep. The study concluded that people who slept soundly in late nocturnal sleep were better able to perform the tasks. This would indicate that good sleep hygiene, particularly a set amount of REM sleep late at night, can greatly improve procedural memory. Likewise, people without good sleep hygiene may suffer from an inability or difficulty in performing tasks from procedural memory.

This is one reason why people are told not to drive if they are not getting sleep. Sleep deprivation greatly inhibits your brain's ability to access procedural memory. You may falter in your responses while driving if you have not had a sufficient amount of sleep. Your body's need for sleep will overcome nearly all other intrinsic drives within you, including your need for safety.

Alzheimer's Disease And Dementia

Alzheimer's disease affects the brain in unique ways. Cognitive abilities are greatly decreased with this medical condition, usually beginning with short-term memory loss. After short-term memory loss, long-term memory begins to fail.

Although procedural memory is a part of long-term memory, it works in a much different way that episodic or declarative memory. Studies have found that procedural memory is not affected as easily or early as other types of long-term memory.

However, studies have shown that procedural memory can begin to fail with advanced or severe cases of Alzheimer's. Still, one study showed that Alzheimer's patients even in severe stages could develop new procedural memory and retain it for up to three months. This would indicate that people who have the disease could retain procedural memory for long after they lose other types of memory, but only if they use the skills frequently.

Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's disease is another medical condition that affects cognitive abilities. One study done in 2008 of patients with Parkinson's showed that there were deficits in procedural learning and procedural memory. The patients and a control group were given specific tasks to perform over a three day period.

The patients with Parkinson's disease who were tested on rotary pursuit learning and procedural memory did not show any deficits in that type of memory. However, when it came to motor memory, procedural memory did falter in the more severe Parkinson's patients. This would indicate that over time procedural memory and in particular the basal ganglia are affected by the disease.

Huntington's Disease

Huntington's disease is a genetic condition that leads to the degeneration of brain cells. One group of researchers had a hypothesis that this deterioration would present as deficiencies in both retrievals of procedural memory and development of new procedural memory. While the study was inconclusive regarding the development of procedural memory, it did show that Huntington's patients have difficulty with retrieval of procedural memory, though not as much difficulty as patients with amnesia.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury, for the most part, has not been found to affect procedural memory. In most patients both young and old, traumatic brain injuries did not impair their ability to recall or learn new procedural memory. However, this could be much different depending on what part of the brain was affected. Hypotheses exist to the effect that if the basal ganglia were injured, procedural memory would falter. However, more studies need to be done in this respect.

Drug Abuse

Prolonged drug abuse can have detrimental effects on the brain, particularly on many different types of memory. To better understand what types of memory are affected by drug abuse, one group of researchers did a study on cocaine abusers. In the study, cocaine users were tested on declarative and procedural memory both before and after a 45-day recovery period.

While the study showed that declarative memory does not improve much with abstinence from cocaine in long-term users, it was found that after a 45-day period without the drug patients did recover some minimal improvement with procedural memory. This would indicate that while substance abuse is detrimental to procedural memory, the effects may not be permanent if one stops using drugs.

Unique Psychological Outlooks

Psychologists have been applying the procedural memory psychology definition to many different applications in recent years. There are some schools of thought that procedural memory actually shapes behavior, personality, and success rates in certain organizational settings. This is largely speculation combined with psychological profiling.

Procedural Memory in Organizational Settings

One way that procedural memory knowledge has been applied is in organizational settings such as large corporations and non-profits. The thought is that the routines in an organization are stored in the procedural memory of the employees. Because of this, it is more difficult for organizations to make changes and improvements.

To test this hypothesis a group of psychologists did a series of tests to determine whether procedural memory played a role in organizational routines. The study concluded that these routines are stored in procedural memory. This knowledge could assist organizations in better understanding how to implement changes in routines that could benefit the organization.

Procedural Memory And Personality

Psychologists and researchers who have studied different parts of the brain and function have developed theories that procedural memory shapes a person's personality. As you grow up, you learn certain behaviors and emotional responses to different stimuli. This shapes who you are, because your brain then later in life automatically issues those responses from procedural memory.

This is one reason why people have such a hard time breaking habits such as smoking or certain emotional responses. Once a process is stored in the procedural memory it is very difficult to forget or consciously override with different behavior. Your procedural memory is emitting these responses automatically, so it takes a vast amount of willpower and self-consciousness to be able to override it with a new memory of new behavior.

When To Get Help

If you or a loved one seem to be having increasing difficulty performing tasks that have been done for years, you may want to consider seeking out medical attention. A professional psychologist can administer tests of procedural memory to determine if there are any severe deficits. If deficits do exist, they can help you determine the right tests to discover the cause and any necessary treatment.


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