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.
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 because your procedural memory allows you to unconsciously recall the information necessary to perform this action. In this way, procedural memory refers to a type of long-term memory that helps you remember how to automatically do things without giving it any thought.
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 memories are information you consciously learn, while procedural memories refer 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. With declarative memory, the process of learning and retrieval is typically consciously performed.
For example, consider the act of 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 could use declarative memory to recall the law and follow it while driving. Since isn't stored in your procedural memory with your motor skills, you must think about it to retrieve it. Procedural learning makes many parts of life simpler.
How Procedural Memory Is Developed
The procedural memory system is complex and involves several regions of the brain, including the cerebellum, caudate nucleus, putamen, and motor cortex. 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.
A motor skill is primarily developed through practice and trial and error. Repeated actions must reinforce synapses in the brain to develop memory. When you first learn how to do something, you may often make mistakes and need to think about what you are doing. However, 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:
- Riding a bicycle
- Driving a car
- Chopping an onion
- Playing piano
- 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 your procedural memory.
In recent years, several studies have been done looking into the role sleep plays in memory. The findings show that sleep hygiene affects your brain's ability to function properly, including when it comes to encoding and recalling memories.
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 more able to perform the tasks, indicating that healthy 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 its other intrinsic instincts, including the need for safety.
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.
There is evidence that people living with Parkinson's disease can experience deficits in procedural memory. Since 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 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 often very difficult to forget or consciously override with different behavior. Your procedural memory emits these responses automatically, so it sometimes takes a lot of willpower to be able to overcome them.
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. Therefore, 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 understanding how to implement changes that could enhance employee performance.
How To Improve Procedural Memory
There are several 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.
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 the benefits of rest. Consider creating a nighttime routine that allows you to wind down after the day and prepare yourself for sleep.
Online Therapy With BetterHelp
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 calls, voice calls, 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 therapist, you can continue down the path to improved mental health.
The Effectiveness Of Online 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.
What is an example of procedural memory?
One example of procedural memories is typing. Typing is one of the fine motor skills that are encoded in the limbic system. In one study, experienced typists were told to type on typewriters that had the letters covered. They all typed very easily because where the letters were was stored with their procedural memory. However, when they were asked to consciously recall and write the letters on the blank keys, they were only 57% accurate. This shows that typing is an unconscious and automatic skill for these typists, which is in the definition of procedural memories.
What part of the brain is procedural memory?
Procedural memory takes place in the prefrontal cortex, the parietal cortex, and the cerebellum. The cerebellum, caudate nucleus, putamen, and motor cortex all assist in encoding and recalling procedural memory. All these parts of the brain play a role in learning and remembering gross motor skills, like riding a bicycle or throwing a football, as well as fine motor skills, like 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.
Is procedural memory implicit?
Yes, procedural memory is implicit memory. That means you can remember things stored in procedural memory without trying or even thinking about remembering them. Consider playing a musical instrument like the piano. If you are experienced at all, you don't have to think about where you need to put your fingers. You simply look at the sheet music or even think of the tune, and your fingers automatically go to the right place. If you try to think about where to put your fingers, you will likely become distracted and not move as quickly as you need to in order to stay with the tempo. Then, your performance will suffer.
What is the difference between declarative and procedural memory?
Declarative memory includes the things you consciously try to learn, while procedural memory is things you learn by doing. As you keep repeatedly practicing motor skills, those actions become encoded in your procedural memory. Then, you recall them automatically. But with declarative memory, you consciously have to think about learning it, and you consciously have to think about it to remember it.
The difference between procedural tasks and conscious thought is substantial. With procedural tasks, you learn and remember how to do something. With declarative tasks, you learn facts. Sometimes, though, you may use both procedural and declarative memory while you are doing one thing.
Take, for example, driving. If you had to consciously think about how to turn on your blinker, turn a corner, and speed up, you would have a lot of trouble paying attention to what's going on around you and getting where you need to go. Defensive driving would be next to impossible if your mind were on how to do the basic tasks of driving. However, say you go to a state you've never been to before. Someone tells you that the state has a law that is different than in your state. In that case, you would use declarative memory to recall the law and follow it. It isn't stored in your procedural memory with your motor skills, so you have to think about it to remember it. Such facts require conscious thought. Yet, at the same time, the motor skills you use for driving would be clicking along as usual, without you paying attention to them.
Another thing that's different about declarative memory is that you can experience the tip of the tongue phenomenon. That happens when you try to recall a name or a fact, and you feel like you almost remember it and that you will remember it soon. But the answer doesn't come until you stop thinking about it. This doesn't happen with procedural memory, because you aren't consciously thinking about what you're doing anyway. You're doing it automatically, and it happens easily and naturally.
Are there other types of implicit memory besides procedural?
Procedural memories are just one type of implicit memory. The other two types are classical conditioning and priming. Classical conditioning is a type of implicit memories that happens when we associate one stimulus with another. The most well-known example of classical conditioning is Pavlov's dogs. When they heard a bell, they salivated because they associated that sound with food being brought to them. Priming refers to a type of implicit memories that bring about changes in behavior based on something that happened often or frequently. For example, if someone gave you a list of words related to kindness, priming might cause you to behave kindly. In this case, you would not think about being kind, but the words about kindness would "prime" you to behave that way automatically.
How does procedural memory work?
You begin using procedural memory early in life, as you learn gross motor skills like walking and fine motor skills like feeding yourself. Procedural memories are formed in your brain when you do something over and over. Each time you perform the action, a signal is sent through the synapses – or gaps – between the nerve cells in your brain. As you continue to do the thing again and again, the route between those synapses becomes strong. Then, whenever you want to do the same thing again, the memory passes along that route easily and automatically. You don't have to think about the skills required to walk – you just do it!
What are the 3 different types of memory?
Memory can be categorized in several ways. First, there are sensory memories, short-term memories, and long-term memories. Under long-term memory, you will find procedural memory and two kinds of declarative memory, which are episodic memory and semantic memory.
Where is procedural memory stored?
Procedural memory is stored in the brain structures of the cerebellum, caudate nucleus, putamen, and motor cortex. The limbic system, especially the basal ganglia, helps coordinate the storage and retrieval of these memories about how to do motor skills.
What does the limbic system have to do with procedural memory?
Often, when people think of the limbic system, they think of emotions. And while it's true that this area of the brain does help with emotional processing, the limbic system is also involved in the processes of memory and learning. The limbic system interacts with other brain structures to carry out the processes involved with creating, storing, and retrieving memories. Also, the limbic system acts on the basal ganglia. When the limbic system sends signals to the basal ganglia, the motor centers of the brain are activated, allowing you to perform motor skills.
Does procedural memory decline with age?
No, procedural memory does not decline with age. While your motor skills may decline, it is not because of what's involved in memory acquisition, storage, or retrieval. Instead, it might happen because your body can't physically carry out what your memory still holds. The brain structures related to procedural memory, including those in the limbic system, do their job no matter how old you get. The only problem that might arise is that you may not be strong enough or steady enough to accomplish the task anymore. Declining declarative memory is a type of problem that many older people deal with, but they typically don't forget how to do things.
Is procedural memory time stamped?
No, procedural memory is not usually time stamped. When memory is time-stamped, that means you know when that memory was made. Chances are, you don't remember when you learned to walk or talk, for example.
What is an example of procedural knowledge?
Procedural knowledge includes any type of knowledge about how to do something that you can recall without consciously thinking about it. This can include motor skills like riding a bicycle, but it can also include things like work procedures. During your onboarding for a new job, you might practice using the computer system in the way your company requires. At first, the process will include consciously thinking about what you need to do. But as you learn this procedural knowledge, you will develop procedural memories, and doing these tasks will become like second nature.
What is one way to improve procedural knowledge?
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. After watching someone else kick a soccer ball, you might learn something from them about how to do it better. Then, after you practice that new knowledge, it can become a part of your procedural memory.
What does cognitive psychology have to do with procedural memory?
Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes. This includes everything involved in memory, from attention to language to problem-solving. Cognitive psychologists also study human memory, including procedural memory. Cognitive psychology, when applied to psychotherapy, primarily focuses on working memory. You need to consciously think about your problems and the things you want to change if you want to make any progress. However, there may be times when you need to think about your procedural memories and develop strategies for changing them. For example, if you want to break a bad habit that has become automatic, you will probably need to assess the problem, find out its source, and make a plan for changing it.
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