Procedural Memory: Its Definition And Importance

Updated November 30, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Procedural memory—the part of your long-term memory responsible for unconsciously recalling and performing actions—plays an important part in helping you function on a daily basis. When you type, ride a bike, or even drive a car without consciously thinking about how you are doing it, you are using your procedural memory. Below, we’re going to discuss procedural memory, how it develops, and its implications regarding your mental and physical health.  

Your Mental Health And Memory Are Intricately Linked

What Is Procedural Memory?

Long-term memory is divided into two subtypes, explicit and implicit memory, the latter of which can be further separated into procedural memory, conditioning, and priming. Implicit memory is utilized when you automatically recall information and events. In the case of procedural memory, the information you’re retrieving is related to a task that you’re performing. For example, when you tie your shoes, you likely do not think about the specific steps involved. Instead, your procedural memory allows you to unconsciously recall the information necessary to tie your shoes and perform the action. 

Differentiating Between Procedural And Declarative Memory

Contrasting two forms of long-term memory, procedural and explicit (also known as declarative memory), can help clarify how procedural memory works. Declarative memory refers to information you consciously learn, while procedural memory refers to actions you typically learn by doing. As you repeatedly practice motor skills, those actions become encoded in your procedural memory. Then, you recall them automatically. But with declarative memory, the process of learning and retrieval is typically consciously performed. 

Take, for example, driving. If you had to consciously think about how to activate your blinker, turn a corner, and speed up, you may have trouble driving without getting distracted. However, if you go to a state you've visited before and someone tells you about a unique road law, you would use declarative memory to recall the law and follow it while driving. It isn't stored in your procedural memory with your motor skills, so you have to think about it to retrieve it. 

How Procedural Memory Is Developed

The cerebellum, caudate nucleus, putamen, and motor cortex all assist in encoding and recalling procedural memory. These parts of the brain play a role in learning and remembering gross motor skills (e.g., riding a bicycle or throwing a football), as well as fine motor skills (e.g., writing with a pen or playing the piano). The basal ganglia, a part of the brain's limbic system, supports learning through feedback and intrinsic rewards.

These parts of the brain 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.

 is primarily 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 may often make mistakes and need to think about what you are doing. But, once the skill is learned, your procedural memory stores that information and recalls it automatically, without conscious thought.

Examples Of Procedural Memory

While some uses of procedural memory—like walking and talking—are common among almost everyone, the specific tasks performed through procedural memory vary based on an individual’s experiences.

Some common examples of procedural memory include:

  • Typing

  • Riding a bicycle

  • Driving a car

  • Chopping an onion

  • Playing piano

  • Swimming

  • Climbing stairs

  • Writing in print or cursive

  • Answering a phone

You can probably come up with many more examples of procedural memory that are unique to what you have learned during your lifetime. 

Procedural Memory Impairment

Several mental and physical health-related challenges can have an impact on our procedural memory. 

Sleep Hygiene

In recent years several studies have been done looking into the role sleep plays in memory. The findings show that sleep hygiene plays an important role in your brain's ability to function properly. 

One study looked specifically at procedural memory and the role of early sleep or late nocturnal sleep. Groups were tested on procedural memory tasks with no sleep, early sleep, and late sleep. The study concluded that people who slept soundly in late nocturnal sleep were better able to perform the tasks, indicating that good sleep hygiene, particularly a set amount of REM sleep late at night, can greatly improve procedural memory. Likewise, people without healthy sleep patterns may have difficulty performing tasks from procedural memory.

This is one reason why people are told not to drive if they are tired. Your responses may slow while driving if you’re tired, as the body's need for sleep can overcome nearly all of its other intrinsic drives, including the need for safety.

Dementia

Different forms of dementia, including dementia that is present in Alzheimer's disease, can cause memory impairment. Cognitive abilities are usually greatly decreased with dementia, and certain forms of long-term memory can eventually fail, typically after short-term memory has been impacted. Procedural memory works in a different way than other forms of long-term memory, though, so it is not affected as easily or early. One study showed that people with Alzheimer's, even in severe stages, could develop procedural memory and retain it for up to three months. 

Parkinson's Disease

There is evidence that people living with Parkinson's disease can experience deficits in procedural memory. Because Parkinson’s is associated with degeneration of the basal ganglia, which plays a key role in utilizing procedural memory, it can impair the brain’s ability to develop and maintain skills associated with procedural memory. 

Huntington's Disease

Huntington's disease is a genetic condition that leads to the degeneration of brain cells. Research has shown that people with Huntington's can experience difficulty utilizing procedural memory.

Implications In Personal Life And Work

Psychologists who study brain function have developed theories that procedural memory can shape 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 sometimes takes a lot of willpower and work to be able to override it.

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

To test this hypothesis, researchers performed a study to determine whether procedural memory played a role in organizational functioning. They concluded that the practices specific to an organization—which may not always be efficient or productive—are stored in procedural memory. This knowledge could assist organizations in better understanding how to implement changes that could enhance performance.

How To Improve Procedural Memory

There are ways you can enhance your brain’s ability to utilize procedural memory. You can sometimes improve your procedural knowledge by watching someone else do the same thing you have already practiced doing. This is called observational learning. For example, after seeing how someone else kicks a soccer ball, you might learn new techniques that you can practice, ideally making them a part of your procedural memory. 

There is also evidence that developing motor skills—such as drawing, sewing, or playing an instrument—early in life can help keep procedural memory intact as we age. In one study, researchers noted that piano players had an increased ability to learn a new skill, comparing it to our ability to memorize a new subject when we have existing knowledge of a related subject. 

Additionally, because sleep disruptions can impair procedural memory, getting a good night’s sleep can help the brain utilize it. Consider creating a nighttime routine that allows you to wind down after the day and prepare yourself for sleep. 

Your Mental Health And Memory Are Intricately Linked

Navigating Memory Concerns With Therapy

Research shows that online therapy can be a useful method of treating mental health concerns associated with memory impairment. In a study on the efficacy of an online intervention for individuals with injury-related memory loss, researchers found that treatment could improve both memory and mood. These results can be added to a growing body of evidence pointing to online therapy as an effective form of care for a variety of mental health-related concerns.

Online therapy can provide you with valuable tools and support if you’re experiencing complex emotions related to memory impairment or similar life challenges. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can work with a licensed therapist from home, through video call, voice call, or in-app messaging. Your mental health professional can connect you with exercises and other resources that may help you work through concerns related to memory and mood on your own time. With the right tools and the guidance of a licensed BetterHelp therapist, you can continue down the path to improved mental health. 

Takeaway

Procedural memory is a vital part of everyday functioning that we usually do not realize we’re utilizing. If you’ve experienced impairment in procedural memory or related concerns, consider getting matched with a licensed BetterHelp therapist online. You deserve supportive mental health care as you address complex emotions associated with memory and live a happy, productive life. 

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