What Is Associative Memory?

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What Is Associative Memory?

Associative memory refers to the ability to remember relationships between concepts, and not just the individual concepts themselves.

In humans, this relates to visual and verbal information, such as remembering how two words are related (e.g., man – woman), or seeing an object and its alternate name (e.g., a guitar). Associative memory is thought to be mediated by the medial temporal lobe of the brain.

History of Associative Memory

Associative memory has been studied for over a century, with early writings describing the phenomenon as "the law of association" in 1885 by George H. Lewes. William James was the first to name the concept of associative memory, and his studies in 1890 formally investigated the phenomenon.

Studies on associative memory continued through the 1940s and '50s, with the first modern review in 1956 by Atkinson & Shiffrin. The review recognized two types of associative memory: encoding specificity and retrieval strength. These ideas were further developed by Endel Tulving and Daniel Schacter in 1990, who introduced a distinction between explicit and implicit memory.

Modern-day understanding of associative memory is guided by the theories of cognitive neuroscience, including those of David C. Rubin and Robert A. Bjork, who compiled their research into the dual-trace theory of explicit memory in 1975.

Tulving's recency hypothesis is frequently cited in support of implicit associative memory, which states that when given a list to study with a short delay between each word, one is more likely to recall the words at the end of the list than at the beginning.

Types of Associative Memory

There are two main types of associative memory: implicit and explicit. Implicit associative memory is an unconscious process relying on priming, whereas explicit associative memory involves conscious recollection.

Implicit Associative Memory

Physiological processes that are affected by implicit memory include the following: performance, arousal level, reaction time, habituation, and thalamic (in the brain) processing speed.

One of the most widely-used tests for implicit associative memory is priming, which was developed by Kutas & Hillyard in 1980. Priming is used to test whether a word or image influences how the subject responds to another stimulus, thus indicating that they have previously encountered the word or image before.

An example of priming is when a person is shown a picture of a car, and then asked to identify a second picture that is related in some way (e.g., another car). If they are able to identify the correct match faster than if they had never seen the first picture, then it is considered evidence that the first picture primed the person to recognize the second.

Explicit Associative Memory

Explicit associative memory relies on conscious recollection of information or events. There are two types of explicit associative memory: episodic and semantic. Episodic memories are the recall of specific personal experiences, such as a wedding anniversary, while semantic memories refer to facts about the world, such as knowing that Paris is in France.

How to Improve Associative Memory

To improve associative memory, you can practice retrieval of associations, which helps strengthen synaptic connections in the brain and enhances their ability to be activated more quickly.

Below are some ways to practice the retrieval of associations.

1. Create a network of associations. This means associating yourself with people who are able to recall many things (or who say they are good at recalling things). By watching them and modeling their actions, you can improve your own ability to recall items by overlearning.

2. Associate one person or thing to another in some way, such as using a rhyme, sentence or phrase. The association can be general (e.g., "grass is green") or specific (e.g., "the doctor is in the house").

3. Create a story with many associations to make it more memorable and to help you recall details. If you have trouble recalling information, then practice recalling it again and again, and note where you are having problems.

4. Practice remembering items in a serial list by creating associations to things at the beginning of the list (as opposed to holding these items in short-term memory). The goal is to make it easier to remember the first item, which will help you recall the rest of the items.

5. Use the method of loci to remember lists or other materials by associating them with locations that you are familiar with (e.g., rooms in your home). This is related to space-coding techniques used by pilots to remember flight paths and procedures, and it works best if you create a visual image of each location.

6. Use imagery to remember a list, an event, or other materials by creating mental pictures and/or using props (e.g., if you are remembering the items on your grocery list, then picture them in your mind when you are at the store).

7. Create associations that show how things are alike or different from one another. For example, if you want to remember the steps in a process, then associate them somehow so that they make sense to you (e.g., "take out" is similar to "out of").

8. Use memory-triggering devices (e.g., cues), which are items or actions that prompt the recall of information that is easy to forget. You can use a memory-triggering device by tying it to anything you want to remember, such as setting an alarm or writing down the information.

9. Associate people with words (or situations) in some way, and then try to recall the person's name by recalling the word (e.g., the word "green" might trigger the name of your friend, "Jenny").

10. Use a method that suits you best. Everyone is different, and some people find it easier to create music or phrases to help them remember things.

Impact of Associative Memory

The value of developing associative memory capabilities has far-reaching implications for your daily life.

Establishing associations helps you to remember information more easily, such as names of people and places, phone numbers, birthdays, and anniversaries. This may help you to recall other related information about them (e.g., someone's birthday might remind you that he or she has a party planned for that evening).

It also helps you to remember things in an efficient manner by recalling information that is useful for specific tasks. For example, you might form associations between the things that you need to do and the people who can help you accomplish them.

Association-forming techniques are also useful for recalling information on tests or in other testing situations (e.g., a driver's test).

Pitfalls of Associative Memory

Associative memory is not always a perfect science. Below are some ways that associative memory might connect in ways that you don't intend when a bad memory is brought back to your mind or a random association is created.

  • You associate your kindergarten teacher with a monkey because she had one on her desk.
  • A smell brings back an event, like the apple pie that your mom would make when you were sick.
  • Your favorite movie or tv show reminds you of someone in it, and then immediately makes you think of them in a new way (in a different context).
  • The school bully draws out the memory of an embarrassing event you had when you were around that person.
  • A song reminds you of your first kiss or some other memorable event in your life, and in doing so makes it harder for you to get "that" song out of your head.

A Word From Verywell

Associative memory is important in daily life. Effectively harnessing this ability can be a huge boon for success. If you struggle with associative memory, there are many techniques you can use to improve it. Some of these include the use of mnemonic devices, visualization, and association-forming strategies (such as linking things with each other).

By doing so, you will be able to recall memories more easily. Remember above all else, associative memory can be improved with practice.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."