Episodic memory refers to the long-term storage of information regarding experiences. Examples of episodic memories include information about past events and activities, such as what happened, how we felt, or who said what to whom.
Episodic Memory Definition
Scholarly definitions of episodic memory are provided below:
“Episodic memory is information about events we have personally experienced … Currently, scientists believe that episodic memory is memory about happenings in particular places at particular times, the what, where, and when of an event.”(Spielman, 2017, p. 259)
“Memory for events in a particular time and place.”(Kearns & Lee, 2015, p. 171)
Semantic Memory vs Episodic Memory
One of the most recognized researchers on memory is Endel Tulving (1972; 1983). His work is often cited because he was one of the first to use the term “episodic memory” in 1972.
Tulving’s categorizations of long-term memory are categorized below:
In the ‘explicit memory’ section of the table above, Tulving addressed the relation between episodic and semantic memory:
“one system can operate independently of the other,” and most likely they are “governed at least partially by different principles” (1983, p. 66), although both are “closely interdependent and interact with one another virtually all the time” (p. 65).
Similarly, Stangor and Walinga (2014) compare the two with examples:
“Episodic memory refers to the firsthand experiences that we have had (e.g., recollections of our high school graduation day or of the fantastic dinner we had in New York last year). Semantic memory refers to our knowledge of facts and concepts about the world (e.g., that the absolute value of −90 is greater than the absolute value of 9 and that one definition of the word “affect” is “the experience of feeling or emotion”).”
Retrieving information from episodic memory usually requires conscious intention and mental effort. However, those memories can also be activated by stimuli in our environment.
Passing by a landmark can call up memories of the first time we saw such a beautiful structure. Smelling an odor from a restaurant might make us remember our mother’s cooking.
Episodic Memory Examples
- Janelle will make an excellent psychotherapist because she has an excellent recall of the feelings that her patients reveal during sessions.
- Mitchell remembers everything about the first time he went fishing with his father.
- Detectives have been trained to phrase questions objectively and without bias when interrogating witnesses about what they observed and heard.
- Whenever Margaret hears a song from Adelle, she remembers going to see her in concert several years ago.
- Mr. Singh remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing the moment he heard the wonderful news that his wife was expecting a baby.
- Coach Pitino can describe every defensive play his team made on their way to winning the 2013 NCAA basketball championship.
- Even though Mika seemed to have a great time at the party, the next day she couldn’t stop ruminating about the moment she spilled wine all over the sofa.
- Roberto can tell you exactly how to get to anywhere you need to go across town.
- Joon is about to perform his recital. He is standing off stage trying to remember all the advice his teacher has given over the last three years.
- Whenever Jackson walks past a bakery, images of his mom kneading dough in their kitchen come to mind.
1. The Memory of Coaches
Many people are amazed at how much detail a coach can recall from a game that occurred years and years ago. If asked by a reporter about an upcoming game against an opponent, it is not uncommon for the coach to describe what happened in a previous match-up.
The coach can describe in amazing detail how a particular play unfolded: the play they called, what type of defense the other team was in, and the specific actions of key players that led to the play either being a success or failure.
The same goes for players. Those that have been around for a while can recall and describe what happened in impressive detail.
It’s almost as if they are visualizing the play in their mind and watching it unfold just as a fan watched it on T.V.
This phenomenon is possible due to a very well-developed episodic memory.
2. False Episodic Memory: The Inaccuracy of Eyewitness Testimony
Most people are very confident they remember events accurately. However, research by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus (1997) has demonstrated that this is not entirely true. When certain conditions are in place, false memories can be created that “feel” very real, and accurate, but in fact, are not.
“False memories are constructed by combining actual memories with the content of suggestions received from others” (1997, p. 75).
Loftus and Palmer (1974) demonstrated that a witness to a car accident could have their memory influenced by the use of different words when asked to recall the event. Click here to see a quick review of that seminal study.
Research on the creation of false memories has had a tremendous impact on law enforcement and the credibility of eyewitness testimony.
3. Flashbulb Memories
A flashbulb memory (FBM) is an extremely vivid memory of a shocking event. It is placed in long-term storage at the moment of encoding. Although it is exceptionally vivid and detailed, FBMs are not 100% accurate.
The term flashbulb memory was originally introduced by Bulk and Kulik (1977) and defined as “…memories for the circumstances in which one first learned of a very surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) event” (p. 73).
An example of an FBM would be remembering where you were and what you were doing when first learning about a national tragedy, such as the assassination of a president or other traumatic public event.
FBMs are conceptually different from other events stored in episodic memory. For instance, an FBM involves memory of where one was when hearing shocking news. More conventional episodic memories are in regards to first-hand experiences (Pillemer, 2009).
See Also: Flashbulb Memory Examples
4. Gender Differences in Episodic Memory
There has been substantial research on gender differences in the recall and encoding of episodic information (Herlitz & Rehnman, 2008). The results of most studies are quite consistent and involve applying various methodologies and experimental tasks.
As stated in Herlitz (2008, p. 55), research reveals that in general:
- “…women consistently outperform men on tasks that require remembering items that are verbal in nature or can be verbally labeled.”
- “…excel on tasks requiring little or no verbal processing, such as recognition of unfamiliar odors or faces”
- “…whereas men outperform women on visuospatial episodic memory tasks (e.g., remembering a route).”
Bloise and Johnson (2007) describe the results of numerous studies succinctly: “Women include not only a greater number of references to their own emotional states but also a greater number of references to the emotional states of others. In addition, when asked to recall emotional life experiences, women recall more memories of both positive and negative personal experiences than men” (p. 192).
5. Mood-Congruent Episodic Memory
Mood-congruent memory (MCM) refers to the tendency for people to remember events or aspects of a situation that are consistent with their mood. So, when a person is happy, they are more likely to remember happy moments. Similarly, when a person is in a negative mood, they are more likely to remember unpleasant events.
Unfortunately, MCM is especially strong in individuals suffering from depression. Clinical psychologists have long observed that depressed patients have a strong tendency to focus on the negative aspects of a situation or life experiences (Faul & LaBar, 2022).
For example, after attending a social gathering, a depressed person will remember saying something awkward, or someone saying something not so nice to them.
They might dwell on that moment for hours and ruminate about it in the days and weeks that follow.
This negative focus only exacerbates the negative mood that depressed individuals experience on a daily basis.
Be careful not to confuse mood-congruent memory with state-dependent or context-dependent memories.
Episodic memory is a type of long-term memory that involves storing information related to personal experiences. Those can be from first-hand experiences or in the context of first learning about traumatic events.
Some individuals have incredibly detailed episodic memories, such as professional athletes and coaches. Although most people would like to believe that their episodic memory is accurate, the research says otherwise.
In fact, studies on eyewitness testimony demonstrate that memory for events observed can be easily influenced by something so simple as how a question is termed.
Research on gender differences reveal that women and men differ in many ways. Women are more accurate at recalling verbal information, while men perform better on visuospatial tasks.
Bloise, S. M. & Johnson, M. K. (2007). Memory for emotional and neutral information: Gender and individual differences in emotional sensitivity. Memory, 15(2), 192–204.
Brown, R., & Kulik, J. (1977). Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5(1), 73-99.
Davidson, P. S., & Glisky, E. L. (2002). Is flashbulb memory a special instance of source memory? Evidence from older adults. Memory, 10(2), 99-111.
Faul, L. & LaBar, K. (2022). Mood-congruent memory revisited. Psychological Review. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000394
Herlitz, A., & Rehnman, J. (2008). Sex differences in episodic memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(1), 52–56.
Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13(5), 585–589.
Loftus, E. F. (1997). Creating false memories. Scientific American, 277(3), 70-75.
Pillemer, D. B. (2009). Flashbulb memories: New issues and new perspectives. Hearing the news” versus “being there”: Comparing flashbulb memories and recall of first-hand experiences, 125-140.
Renoult, L., & Rugg, M. D. (2020). An historical perspective on Endel Tulving’s episodic-semantic distinction. Neuropsychologia, 139, 107366. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2020.107366
Riedel, W. J., & Blokland, A. (2015). Declarative memory. Cognitive Enhancement, 215-236.
Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving & W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of Memory, (pp. 381–403). New York: Academic Press.
Tulving, E. (1983). Elements of episodic memory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wittekind, C. E., Terfehr, K., Otte, C., Jelinek, L., Hinkelmann, K., & Moritz, S. (2014). Mood-congruent memory in depression – the influence of personal relevance and emotional context. Psychiatry Research, 215(3), 606–613. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2013.11.027
Appendix: Description of Image
Top Level Heading: Long-term Memory
Sub-Category 1: Explicit Memory (conscious effort)
Types of Explicit Memory: Semantic Memory (facts and general knowledge) and Episodic Memory (events and experiences)
Sub-Category 2: Implicit Memory (without conscious effort)
Types of Implicit Memory: Procedural Memory (motor skills) and Priming (enhanced activation)