Episodic memory: Definitions, examples, and tips for improvement
Do you remember your first kiss or a once-in-a-lifetime trip?
You can recall these events thanks to what Endel Tulving called your episodic memory—a part of your long-term memory. You use it when remembering event details—like what happened, who was there, and how the experience made you feel.
Read on to learn more about this crucial part of your long-term memory and how you can strengthen it for better results, even later on in life.
What is episodic memory?
Episodic memory refers to your ability to recall and re-experience events in your life—meaning you can remember both the physical details of an event and how they made you feel.
This type of memory covers both specific experiences—like your wedding day—and general experiences. For instance, your memory of what spaghetti tastes like is likely based on a blend of multiple tastings over your life, not a single event.
Episodic memory is also not the exact same as autobiographical memory. Although these two forms of memory overlap, episodic is a recollection of the events you’ve experienced, while autobiographical is a full accounting of who you are, which includes both semantic and episodic memories.
Episodic memory vs. semantic memory: What’s the difference?
Episodic memory and semantic memory both make up your explicit long-term memory (also called declarative memory). Both types are crucial for helping us remember our pasts, but there are some key differences in how these memories work.
Semantic memory covers general knowledge about the world. It helps you remember that Croatia is a European country with a capital city named Zagreb.
Episodic memory is all about events in your past. So episodic memory tells you that you visited Croatia in 2002 and that you stayed in Zagreb for three nights. It also covers your personal experiences there, like when you looked out the airplane window and saw the skyline or the night you strolled through the city’s plazas.
What are examples of episodic memory?
Episodic memory examples
- The taste of your grandma’s cooking
- The feeling of homesickness on your first night at summer camp
- That you went for lunch with your friend last Thursday
Non-episodic memory examples
- How to make your grandma’s cookies (procedural memory)
- The items on your summer vacation packing list (working memory)
- The time difference between where your friend lives and where you live (semantic memory)
How to improve your episodic memory
Unlike other types of memory, episodic memory is particularly vulnerable to degradation. Age and neurodegenerative disorders can both affect our ability to recall past events.
A good amount of research has gone into cognitive neuroscience and how to strengthen your episodic memory. Based on these studies, these tips can help you improve your overall long-term episodic memory functions.
Reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is an all too common neurodegenerative disease that affects neurons throughout your episodic memory system, like in your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. People with AD might find episodic retrieval difficult, failing to recall basic episodic memories, like what they did that day or memories from their childhood.
AD affects roughly 1 in 9 people above 65 in the US, so it’s important that you do everything you can to reduce your risk for this disease. You can’t change a genetic predisposition for AD, but your lifestyle is under your control.
According to the CDC, you can reduce your chances of an AD diagnosis by addressing eight common risk factors. These include:
- High blood pressure: Regular exercise and a healthy diet with lower intakes of sodium can help reduce high blood pressure.
- Physical inactivity: Adults should aim for at least 150-300 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity weekly, according to the WHO.
- Obesity: Help manage your waistline through exercise and a calorie-restricted diet.
- Diabetes: A diet full of veggies and healthy fats can reduce your chance of getting diabetes.
- Depression: Help from a mental health professional is the best way to manage depression.
- Smoking: Support groups and nicotine replacement therapy are both strong ways of kicking a smoking habit.
- Hearing loss: People with mild levels of hearing loss are far more likely to develop dementia. If you’re facing potential hearing loss, speak with a healthcare provider about the best options for you.
- Binge drinking: Binge drinking is considered five or more drinks in a single sitting (four for women). Try to simply drink less or avoid situations where you might be tempted to overindulge.
The sooner you start addressing these risk factors, the better. Take these steps to reduce your chance of AD and protect your episodic memory in your later years.
Protect your brain
A common symptom of concussions is memory loss. Specifically, repeated concussions can affect the brain structures responsible for episodic memory functions, which could mean difficulty remembering conversations you’ve had or people you’ve met.
The most common causes of concussions in young adults and children include:
- Blunt force trauma, like from a car crash
- Sports-related injuries
Recognize potentially dangerous situations in your life that could lead to concussions and take preventative actions. Small habits—like always wearing a helmet while on a bike—can go a long way in protecting your brain and its ability to retain episodic memories.
Learn to focus on what you’re doing
One of the most important parts of forming memories is the encoding process. In this stage of human memory creation, your brain takes what it senses and stores it in the appropriate brain regions, like the hippocampus, amygdala, and other parts of the medial temporal lobe.
Multitasking or quickly switching between tasks can harm your memory encoding process, making it more likely you’ll have memory deficits during this time period.
For instance, spending your vacation constantly checking your phone for work updates might impair your ability to recall what you did during your vacation.
However, multitasking is harder to give up than many might think. Here are some tips to focus more on the here and now:
- Start a meditation practice: Meditation helps in many ways, but one of its main effects is to help you learn how to focus more on what you’re doing now.
- Turn off notifications on your phone: Turn work notifications off when you’re not working. This way, you can properly focus on the important things you do after work.
- Organize your day: Without a plan for what you want to get done, it can be easy to try to do everything at once. Try setting aside blocks of time each day for specific work to avoid the temptation to multitask.
- Take breaks: Your brain can’t be running at 100% all day. Take breaks so that your brain can focus on the task at hand properly.
All these habits can help improve your conscious recollection later on. This way, twenty years later, you’re more likely to remember the specific events in your life that shaped who you are.
Harness the full potential of your brain
Your brain is also good for a lot more than just forming episodic memories. It can also find unique solutions and explanations for the world around us.
Whether it’s reinventing an industry or finding the perfect solution for your client, your brain can help you come to eureka moments. In our guide to eureka moments, you can learn how to think more creatively, so you can be a true thought leader in your space of expertise.