Episodic Memory

The Nature of Episodic Memory Explained

Episodic memory, a type of explicit memory Opens in new window coined by Tulving (1972), is concerned with the storage and retrieval of personally experienced events or episodes. In other words, it is an aubiographical memory responsible for storing a record of the events in our lives. It enables us to answer questions such as:

The essential point about an episodic memory is that recollection involves some feeling of re-experiencing the event itself. Most commonly this would involve some image of the event in our ‘mind’s eye.’ For instance, one may recall the episode of eating a club sandwich (event) yesterday (time) at the Chablis Restaurant (place).

Episodic memory is contrasted with semantic memory Opens in new window. With episodic recall one is not required to understand the meaning of the event or the relationship among its parts. In fact, the information coded in episodic memory may not be meaningful. For example, one may recall that a nonsense word gloim occurred at a particular point in a list of nonsense words. There is no meaning in either the word or its location.

In accord with Craik and Lockhart’s (1972) depth of processing model, one would predict that episodic coding would involve shallow processing and that it would not produce durable memories. Wingfield and Byrnes (1981) described episodic memory as being highly susceptible to interference and readily subject to forgetting. Thus, episodic memory is not usually considered to be a mnemonic strategy.

On the other hand, in actual application, there is frequently an interaction between episodic and semantic methods that may lead to enhanced recall. For example, several months ago, I was introduced to my new neighbor Heinz (episode) in front of his house (place). I can still clearly recall the event (episodic recall). However, had I not combined episodic and semantic recall, I would probably not be able to remember that the low meaning and low imagery word, Heinz, was my neighbor’s name.

To me there was no readily apparent way to associate the word Heinz with the appearance or style of my neighbor. Luckily, I observed that the front door of his house is red, like the color of Heinz Ketchup (semantic encoding). Thus, to recall my neighbor’s name, I recall the event of our introduction, visualize the front door (high imagery), associate it with Heinz Ketchup (high imagery) and recall my neighbor’s name. This technique of combining imagery with episodic and semantic recall has been personally very useful. A review of the research literature, however, does not reveal that application of the method has been experimentally evaluated.

In sum, episodic memories are types of explicit memories Opens in new window. They are memories of the things that happen to us or take place in our presence.

As mentioned earlier, episodic memory is also known as autobiographical memory. Your memories of what you ate for breakfast and of what your professor said in class today are episodic memories. We tend to use the phrase “I remember …” when we are referring to episodic memories, as in “I remember the blizzard of 2004.”