Different types of memory

March 10, 2021
October 26, 2021

By Dr Ruth Watson, Associate Practitioner

The human memory system is a complex one – our brain is designed to store information in different forms, and access this information at the necessary time. This means that when there are changes in our memory, it won’t necessarily affect all types of memory. We also need to consider that information can only reach our memory, if we can pay attention to it and process the information using our senses. In fact our senses form the basis for our memories – which is why even very old memories are quickly triggered by music, scent, taste etc.

Short-term (working) memory

This is the memory system which is responsible for holding small amounts of information for a short time – for example reciting a phone number, until you can write it down. Working memory allows this information to be used easily (e.g. whilst doing a calculation) but only keeps it in working memory for a brief period. If the information remains in short-term memory long enough (e.g. if you repeat the phone number over and over), it will then make the transition into long-term memory.)

Long-term memory

Our long-term memory storage is very sophisticated. It includes ‘explicit’ memories and ‘procedural’ memories.

Explicit memories can be grouped as ‘episodic’ (memories of events that happened to you) and ‘semantic’ memories (general knowledge about the world).
We gradually build on these memories throughout our lives, and we are able to store huge amounts of knowledge.

We tend to store memories in a more detailed form, if they are connected to strong emotions. We can try and retrieve memories from this long-term system when we need them. Cues and associated memories can help us to do this.

Our long-term memory also incorporates ‘procedural’ memory – this is not consciously accessible, but includes skills that we use everyday without thinking (e.g. driving). These memories develop after doing activities repeatedly.

Types of memory
Because it changes how we process information, dementia can affect long-term and short-term memory in different ways
The brain