Episodic Memories and Your Experiences

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Episodic memory is an individual's memory of a specific event. Because each person has a different perspective and experience of an event, each person's episodic memory of that event is unique.

Episodic memory is a category of long-term memory that involves the recollection of specific events, situations, and experiences. Your memories of your first day of school, your first kiss, attending a friend's birthday party, and your brother's graduation are all examples of episodic memories. In addition to your overall recall of the event itself, it also involves your memory of the location and time that the event occurred.

Closely related to this is what researchers refer to as an autobiographical memory or your memories of your own personal life history. As you can imagine, episodic and autobiographical memories play an important role in your self-identity.

An Overview of Episodic Memory

Imagine that you get a phone call from an old college friend. You get together for dinner one day and spend the evening reminiscing about numerous amusing moments from your days at university. Your memories of all those specific events and experiences are examples of episodic memory.

These episodic memories are important because they allow you to recall personal experiences that are an important part of your life.

These memories provide you with a sense of personal history as well as a shared history with other individuals in your life.

Episodic Memory vs. Semantic Memory

The term episodic memory was first introduced by Endel Tulving in 1972 to distinguish between knowing factual information (semantic memory) and remembering events from the past (episodic memory).

Episodic memory together with semantic memory is part of the division of memory known as explicit or declarative memory. Semantic memory is focused on general knowledge about the world and includes facts, concepts, and ideas. Episodic memory, on the other hand, involves the recollection of particular life experiences.

Types of Episodic Memories

There are a number of different types of episodic memories that people may have.

These include memories of:

Specific Events

These involve memories of particular moments from an individual's personal history. Remembering your first kiss is an example of a specific episodic memory.

Personal Facts

Knowing who was President the year that you got married, the make and model of your first car and the name of your first boss are all examples of personal fact episodic memories.

General Events

Remembering what a kiss feels like is an example of this general type of memory. You do not remember each and every kiss you've ever shared, but you can recall what it feels like based on your personal experiences.

Flashbulb Memories

Flashbulb memories are vivid and detailed "snapshots" related to finding out the particularly important news. Sometimes these moments might be highly personal, like the moment you found out that your grandmother had died. In other cases, these memories might be shared by many individuals in a social group. The moments that you found out about the 9/11 attacks or the Paris concert theater attacks are examples of shared flashbulb memories.

Examples of Episodic Memories

Some examples of episodic memories might include:

  • Your memory of your recent trip to Disneyland
  • Where you were when you learned that a loved one had died
  • Your memory of your old cell phone number
  • Your memory of your first day at your job
  • Your recollection of your first date with your partner

Remember, each person's episodic memory of an event is entirely unique. Even other people who shared the same experience may have slightly different recollections of what happened.

What Research Suggests

Researchers have found that episodic memory can also be interdependent with semantic memory. On learning tasks, participants performed better when new information was aligned with prior knowledge, suggesting that semantic knowledge of a task provides a sort of framework for new episodic learning.

Participants were asked to remember the prices of grocery items. Those in the control group were better able to remember these prices when the new information was congruent with their existing episodic memories of grocery prices. Amnesiac participants in the experimental group, however, performed much worse at remembering new information because they did not have access to episodic information from their past.

Conversely, researchers have also found that episodic memories also play a role in the retrieval of semantic memories. In experiments where participants were asked to generate lists of items in particular categories, those who were able to rely on episodic memories performed better than amnesiac participants who did not have access to episodic memories.

Studies also suggest that there are sex differences in episodic memory. Research has found, for example, that women tend to outperform men on tests of episodic memory function, particularly on verbal-based episodic memory. Studies also show that women are able to access these memories faster and date them more accurately than men.

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