Semantic Memory

The Nature of Semantic Memory Explained

Semantic memory is a repository of knowledge a person possesses about the world. It is a kind of explicit memory Opens in new window that concerns general knowledge such as: words, meanings, relations, concepts, symbols and rules, etc. (Brown, 1975).

Much of semantic memory is related to the abstract categories of language. Semantic memory is the primary type of memory involved in recognition. Knowing that all birds have two legs is an example of a semantic memory.

According to Tulving (1972) semantic memory is based on one’s stable, long-term knowledge of language Opens in new window and how to use it.

You can “know” that the United States has fifty states without visiting them and personally adding them up. You “know” who authored Hamlet, although you were not looking over Shakespeare’s shoulder as he did so. These represent examples of semantic memory.

Your future recollection that there are several memory systems is more likely to be semantic than episodic Opens in new window. In other words, you are more likely to “know’ that there are several types of memory than to recall where you were and how you were sitting. Semantic memory is activated when we say “I know …”, as in “I know about …” (or “I heard about …”) “…the blizzard of 1898.”

The essential feature of semantic memory is that it can be used without reference to the events that account for its formation in the first place. Thus, when using language or doing arithmetic, we are not aware of the original circumstances under which we learnt to do these things; they are simply something we ‘know’.

Leveraging on (the) free recall task, the forgetting of words can be considered as a failure of episodic memory, since the locus of difficulty is in remembering a specific past event—namely, that a particular word was presented in a list we saw or heard at a specific time.

Semantic memory can also store information about ourselves and events that have happened to us.

When we are asked what we have done, what our opinions are and so on, we do not, as would be the case with episodic recall Opens in new window, remember specific past experiences in order to answer. Instead, we have access to a general account of ourselves, which is often sufficient to answer a wide range of personal questions. Thus, when asked your opinion about a particular piece of music, your positive reaction might be reinforced by recounting some occasion when you found it particularly enjoyable.