Why Semantic Memory Is Important

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

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Semantic memory is arguably the most important part of long-term memory. This subset of long-term memory is where all of the information you know about the world is stored. When you know what an object is, the name of a color, or the name of the president, you are accessing semantic memory.

Semantic memory is extremely important for children and students because this is the type of memory that allows you to remember the facts that you are learning and tested on. Semantic memory is also extremely important for most people in the workforce because they need to know the basic information to perform their jobs.

For everyone else, semantic memory is important because it is what allows you to know the world around you. Without semantic memory, you wouldn't know what a computer was, or a telephone. You wouldn't know that grass is green, or that birds can fly.

Semantic Memory Definition

The most basic semantic memory definition is that it is the subset of memory that allows you to know about the world around you. Semantic memory is a subset of long-term memory. The recall of semantic memory is largely automatic with prompting. However, you may have to think to recall some facts that are stored in semantic memory.

One of the most basic semantic memory psychology definitions is that it is the memory that allows you to learn and remember facts when studying a new subject. Children use semantic memory when they are learning colors, numbers, shapes, and objects. Teens and adults use semantic memory in educational courses and on the job.

Semantic Memory Examples

There are many examples of semantic memory that could be discussed. Semantic memory is that which allows you to know about the world around you. It does not rely on episodic memory, which means that you don't have to have a recollection of how you learned the information, only the facts themselves. Some examples of semantic memory are:

  • Knowing that the sky is blue
  • Being able to recall that Washington D.C. is the nation's capital and Washington is a state
  • Knowing how to write numbers
  • Understanding how to speak or write a sentence
  • Knowing the names of the colors
  • Being able to recall what a cat is
  • Knowing how to use a smartphone
  • Being able to recall that the last president was Barak Obama
  • Language comprehension

Essentially, all of that information that you learned in school and college is in your semantic memory. As you learn new information and facts like an adult, these facts are also assimilated into the semantic memory. A person of some age could have vast amounts of information stored in semantic memory.

Episodic Memory vs. Semantic Memory

It is important to understand the differences between episodic and semantic memory. Both are subtypes of long-term memory. However, there are some distinct differences.

The main difference between episodic and semantic memory is that episodic memory is specific to the individual. Episodic memory is the long-term memory of things that happened to you specifically, such as your wedding or the birth of a child. Semantic memory is more general and can be shared vastly throughout the human world.

Conditions and consequences of retrieval of the information stored are also different between episodic and semantic memory. The circumstances that lead to the retrieval of episodic memory can change or add to that memory. This also makes the episodic memory more easily lost. By contrast, the semantic memory will remain unchanged with retrieval.

Semantic Memory Brain Structures

While there have been many studies about long-term memory and the parts of the brain associated with it, studies into semantic memory specifically have been lacking until only recently. One recent study has determined that semantic memory works partly through a distributed network of cortical regions in the brain that is similar to the motor and sensory memories.

Most specifically, development, retrieval, and maintenance of semantic memory appear to be controlled by the left lateral prefrontal cortex. The anterior temporal cortex may also have an impact on the retrieval and maintenance of semantic memory, but more studies are needed.

Semantic Memory Organization

There are two main ways that semantic memory could be organized in the brain for retrieval. These are taxonomically and thematically. A hierarchy organizes taxonomically organized information. Cross-categorical relationships organize thematically organized information. Researchers have been attempting to determine which of these is accurate for semantic memory.

A recent study found that both are technically accurate. Children and young adults tend to use the thematical organization, while adults tend to use the taxonomical organization. The studies showed that over time the organization of semantic memory changes as people mature.

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Another curiosity of semantic memory is retrieval processes. Some psychologists and neuroscientists have speculated that retrieval is based on exact fact. However, another school of thought is that it is relational. For example, you could say that a crow can fly. The first school of thought would be that your semantic memory knows that a crow specifically can fly. The second school of thought would be that you know that birds fly, and crows are birds, and so they fly.

A study done recently by a group of researchers found that the second school of thought is correct. They based this conclusion on reaction time to retrieve the information. The amount of time it takes to retrieve semantic memory would indicate that it is relational in nature.

Development Of Semantic Memory

Semantic memory is primarily developed through repetition and rehearsal. Information is gathered through the senses and relayed to short-term memory, where through repetition and rehearsal, it is committed to the long-term memory of semantic memory. Different people require different amounts of repetition and rehearsal to commit something to semantic memory.

Three Main Types Of Encoding

Three main types of encoding are used to commit information to semantic memory. These are visual, acoustic, and meaning. In other words, people might encode information to semantic memory through pictures or reading words and numbers, by hearing the information over and over again, or by relating the information to something else that has meaning in the memory.

The primary way that most people encode semantic memory is through meaning. However, some people do very well encoding with visual aids or through hearing the information over and over again. It depends on the person and their learning style.

Movement Between Episodic And Semantic Memory

There is a constant movement of information between episodic and semantic memory. As you learn information in school, at work, or through independent learning, your short-term memory relays it to episodic memory. At first, you will remember the exact time that you learned the information. However, that information is then relayed to the semantic memory, and the episodic memory may be lost.

Improving Semantic Memory

Particularly if you are a student or someone who is constantly learning new information, you may be curious about how to improve your semantic memory. Semantic memory is a type of memory that can be exercised and improved through hard work. There are some very simple ways that you can help yourself commit information to semantic memory more successfully.

Relation Of Prior Knowledge To New Knowledge

One of the best things you can do to encode semantic memory is to relate it to some prior knowledge. When you create connections to the new material with material already stored in semantic memory, it helps create associations that will help you remember the information. This is in line with the views of how semantic memory is encoded and organized.

Maintenance Rehearsal Vs. Elaborate Rehearsal

Maintenance rehearsal is the act of repeating information to keep it in mind. For example, you are using maintenance rehearsal when you repeat a phone number over and over again to remember it until you dial the phone. This is a good way to keep information in short-term memory, but there is little evidence that it does anything for relaying that information to the semantic memory for long-term storage.

Elaborate rehearsal is much more effective for encoding semantic memory. This includes creating a mental image to associate with the new memory, relating it to previous knowledge, taking notes while reading or listening to information, or creating mnemonic devices to remember information.

Retrieval Practice

Engaging in activities that force recall and retrieval of the information you are trying to encode in your semantic memory will help reinforce the information in storage. The more activities you engage in, such as rereading notes or writing out lists of vocabulary words, the more likely it will be that you will remember the information at a later date. The more retrieval practice you do, the longer you will remember the information.

When To Get Help

If you or a loved one are having a hard time remembering basic information about the world, it could be a sign of a deeper cause such as Alzheimer's, dementia, or Huntington's disease. You or your loved one may suddenly be having trouble coming up with the right word for an object, or being able to remember what color something is.

Also, children who have a hard time encoding new semantic memory could be facing learning disabilities or other cognitive disorders. If a child seems simply unable to access semantic memory after a short period, it could be a sign of a deeper problem that needs to be addressed.

Any time you have issues with your memory, you should contact a psychologist. A licensed psychologist will be able to test memory with research-proven methods. They can then help you determine the next steps or tests that need to be done to lead to a diagnosis and treatment.

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