Let’s talk about memories. We owe a lot to our memories. We wouldn’t be able to tie our shoes or climb a mountain if we didn’t have the memories of how to practice these skills. The memory of traffic rules keeps us safe on the road. Remembering all of our coworkers’ names saves us a lot of embarrassment.
In order to study memory and how they contribute to our overall intelligence and growth, we must identify the different types of memories that we hold. Not all memories are the same: retrieving the idea that Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania is different than the memory of using the subway system to get around Philadelphia.
One of two categories of memories is declarative memory. Declarative memories can help you ace a test, tell a story, and form your view of the world – and the way that you use them to do so requires specific parts of the brain. The facts and figures you are reading now will be well on their way to becoming declarative memories!
What is Declarative Memory?
Declarative memories, to put it simply, are conscious memories of facts and events. These memories are long-term memories and they can stick with you for the rest of your life. 2+2=4, red means “stop” and green means “go." These are all examples of declarative memories.
Declarative Memories Examples
Other examples of declarative memories include:
- The date of your mother’s birthday
- The memory of going out to a restaurant for your mother’s 50th birthday
- The knowledge of different parts of the brain
- The time you had to dissect a sheep’s brain for a class
- Who is on the $5 bill
- The first time you visited Washington D.C.
- The sound of birds singing on your morning run
Are Declarative Memories Implicit?
Declarative memories are also known as explicit memories, but the categories of memories are slightly more complicated. Redditors on the AcademicPsychology subreddit said it best: "Declarative/Non-Declarative refers to the storage system. Explicit/Implicit refers to the method of retrieval from storage. So yes, they are related ideas, but refer to different aspects of memory."
Just like there are "declarative" and "non-declarative" memories, there are "explicit memories" and "implicit memories." These memories are different than explicit memories: they are unconscious memories of sequences or procedures that allow you to complete certain skills or learn something new.
While declarative memories may work hand in hand with implicit memories to help you build skills, implicit memories are necessary for you to move further with any hands-on activity.
Implicit Memory Examples
- The ability to tie your shoes without thinking about each step
- Having a physical reaction to the fear of heights (and not knowing where this fear began)
- Knowing that a certain smell belongs to rotting fruit while a similar smell belongs to fresh flowers
Tests that assess your explicit memories and implicit memories are often very different and require you to use different parts of the brain to retrieve these memories and apply them to whatever task is in front of you. I include this information about implicit memories only to help you understand what declarative memories are not. To see how well your declarative and implicit memories function, try our tool that measures memory and take a look at your results.
Let’s dive deeper into declarative memories and where they are stored in the brain.
Different Types of Declarative Memories
The memory of your mother’s birth date is very different from the memory of going to a restaurant for your mother’s birthday. They appear in one of four subcategories of declarative memories.
Semantic memories are the general facts and figures that you can write down in a sentence or two. For example, your mother’s birth date is a semantic memory.
Episodic memories are the “episodes” that take place in your life. These memories often play out like a TV show or a movie with you as the main character. The memory of going to a restaurant for your mother’s birthday is an episodic memory.
There are even subcategories of memories within these subcategories of memories. One that is particularly important to know is flashbulb memories. These are episodic memories that feel like a flash in time. You may not always remember where you sat in each one of your classrooms or who sat next to you, but you may be able to vividly remember where you were and who you were with if you were in school on 9/11. Flashbulb memories are usually very specific memories of very significant events. If you know where you were during the Challenger explosion, the moment that you learned about the first lockdowns of COVID-19, or when you learned that someone very close to you had passed away, you have flashbulb memories stored in your long-term memory.
Although semantic and episodic are the two most well-known types of declarative memories, they are often blended together or recalled at the same time. The memories, for example, that your mother and you have the same birthday, that you are both Tauruses, and that you always tend to butt heads when it comes to birthday plans, become an autobiographical memory of how you relate to your birthday. Autobiographical memories are a system of conscious memories that help us put together the idea of who we are as a person.
The last type of declarative memory is known as spatial memories. These are specific memories about the space between two points or locations. The route you take from your home to your parents’ home, for example, is a spatial memory that is consciously retrieved when you need to go from one place to the other.
Where Are Declarative Memories Stored?
All memories are first delivered to the brain and stored as short-term memories before they are converted to long-term memories that stick with you for a long period of time. These short-term memories are stored in the prefrontal cortex. These memories don’t stay here for long – by the next day, many short-term memories have been converted to long-term memories. This process is said to be done in the hippocampus. Although neurologists don’t know exactly where different types of declarative memories are stored, many signs point to the temporal cortex.
How to Strengthen Memory Storage and Recall
If you want to more effectively use and consciously interact with your declarative memories, you will not only need to store them but also recall them. This process is often regarded as more difficult than recalling implicit memories. In order to recall declarative memories, we must bring them to our conscious mind. Fortunately, like other parts of the body, we can strengthen our brainpower in order to improve memory recall and bring up facts, figures, and “episodes” faster than ever. These tips can help you strengthen your declarative memory, no matter how far back these memories go.
Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best things you can do for your memory. Our bodies perform a long list of healing and helpful functions while we sleep, including the storage of short-term memories into long-term memories. This process is most likely to happen in the “deeper” stages of sleep, which are easier to reach (for longer periods of time) when we lie down for the recommended eight hours of sleep. If you can schedule your day to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night, you might find that your whole body feels great and your mind is sharp.
2) Relieve Stress
What sleep helps; stress can hurt. We often find that our sleep is impaired by chronic stress. Maybe we have a test coming up that is making us nervous, or we are overwhelmed with anxiety. All of these feelings make it harder for the body to sleep and perform many other functions, including the storage and recall of memories. Reducing your stress can do wonders for your body and mind.
3) Connect Memories to What You Already Know
Memorizing facts and figures during the day can be tough. There are plenty of ways to make memorization easier: create mnemonic devices, write the facts down on flashcards, etc. Another effective way to make these declarative memories stick in your brain is to connect them to things that you already know. By tying what you want to remember to what you already know, your brain has an easier time finding a place to store these memories and recall them alongside memories that your brain has already deemed as “important.”
4) Be Mindful
Connecting facts to what you already know are one way to practice mindfulness. You want to be able to focus on the information in front of you and get a clear picture of it for your long-term memory storage. If you’re distracted by your phone, your notifications, or a completely different task, your working memory may become overwhelmed and these short-term memories won’t be as strong. Be mindful – whether it’s practicing daily meditation or putting away your phone when you study.
5) Practice Healthy Habits
Exercise, a balanced diet, and other healthy habits can also fuel your brain like they fuel your body. Studies have shown that regular exercise can improve memory recall and a diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids can improve overall brain functioning. Now, hit the gym and grab your supplements!