Long-term memory refers to the system in our brain that stores information for extended periods, from hours to a lifetime (Norris, 2017).
This category of memory differs significantly from short-term memory, not only by the duration of memory retention, but also by its unlimited storage capacity (Revlin, 2012).
Types of Long-term memory include explicit memory (with sub-types: semantic and episodic) and implicit memory (with sub-types: procedural and emotional), as demonstrated in the image below:
Each of the above types of long-term memory are defined below:
- Explicit Memory: This is the conscious, intentional recollection of factual information, previous experiences, and concepts.
- Semantic Memory: This is a subtype of explicit memory that encompasses general worldly knowledge we’ve amassed throughout our lives.
- Episodic Memory: Another category of explicit memory, it represents our memory of experiences and specific events in time in a serialized form.
- Implicit Memory: This represents previous experiences in people’s skills and activities that they perform without conscious awareness.
- Procedural Memory: This is a type of implicit memory that enables us to carry out commonly learned tasks without conscious thought.
- Emotional Memory: This is the aspect of memory that covers our recollection of emotional responses from significant life events (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2009).
See Also: Types of Short-Term Memory
Long-Term Memory Examples
1. Explicit Memories
1.1 Semantic Memories
|Taking a Multiple-Choice Exam||Retrieving information from long-term memory to choose the correct response option in an exam|
|Writing an Essay on History||Searching long-term memory for key information about historical events, such as dates and figures|
|Identifying Symbols||Recognizing the meaning of traffic signs effortlessly|
|Reading a Book||Recognizing words and comprehending the text without much conscious effort|
|Recalling Famous Quotes||Remembering legendary quotes or sayings after reading or hearing them once|
|Recalling a Poem||Ability to recite a learned poem word for word|
|Remembering Key Events||Memory of dates and details about significant historical events|
|Recognizing a Song||Identifying a song from a few notes and remembering its lyrics|
|Remembering Formulas||Memory of mathematical and scientific formulas|
|Old Advertisements||Recalling theme tunes or catchphrases from commercials long after they’ve stopped airing|
1.2 Episodic Memories
|Testifying in Court||Recalling a sequence of events observed during a crime for testimony|
|The Job Interview||Searching memory for previous work experiences and challenges to describe in an interview|
|Who Said What||Vividly remembering past conversations and agreements in discussions with a partner|
|Birthday Remembrance||Remembering the date and significance of a loved one’s birthday|
|Traveling Back to a Favorite Vacation Spot||Navigating to a familiar site seen during a memorable holiday without a map|
|Childhood Memories||Recalling the face of a childhood friend after several years|
|Surviving a Sporting Event||Ability to recall sports statistics, scores, team members, and plays|
|Driving Test||Recollecting details about the first driving test|
|First Date||Remembering the location, conversations, and feelings experienced during a first date|
|Childhood Events||Recollection of family, school events, or get-togethers|
2. Implicit Memories
2.1 Procedural Memories
|Playing an Old Song||Recalling how to play a particular song on the piano from long-term memory|
|Driving to Work||Navigating a familiar route automatically without much conscious thought|
|Professional Athletes||Performing well-practiced moves almost instinctively without much conscious thought|
|Recalling a Favorite Recipe||Easily remembering the ingredients and steps to prepare a favorite dish|
|Cycling||Remembering how to ride a bike even after a long period of inactivity|
|Identifying Different Tastes and Smells||Recognizing the taste of chocolate or the smell of roses without much thought|
|Using a Tool||Remembering how to use a screwdriver or hammer despite infrequent use|
|Singing a Song||Ability to sing a song after hearing it several times|
|Guiding an Activity||Instructing someone on a procedure you’re comfortable with, like cooking a meal|
|Motor Skills||Engaging in physical activities like swimming or riding a bike without much conscious thought|
2.2 Emotional Memories
|The Unliked Colleague||Developing negative emotional reactions towards a colleague due to numerous unpleasant encounters|
|A Startling Reminder||Feeling intense nervousness and fear when encountering situations resembling a traumatic event|
|Responding to A Favorite Jam||Automatically starting to dance when a specific song plays|
|Feeling Nervous During Exams||Recurring anxiety during tests based on previous stressful test experiences|
|First Kiss||Remembering the emotional and physical experiences associated with a first kiss|
|Feeling of Fear at the Dentist||Experiencing recurring anxiety and fear during dental visits due to a painful past experience|
|The Two-Wheel Triumph||Remembering the excitement of riding a bike for the first time|
|Mourning a Loss||Emotionally reminiscing about losing a loved one, often resurfacing on anniversaries|
|Responding to Criticism||Reacting negatively to criticism based on emotional memories from past experiences|
|Experiencing Déjà Vu||Feeling a strong sense of familiarity with something that shouldn’t be familiar at all|
|Reacting to Pain||Reflecting an immediate emotional response to a painful stimulus due to past experiences|
Applications of Long-Term Memory
1. In Education
Listening to a professor’s lecture does not result in that material being sent straight from the student’s working memory, where it is being consciously processed, to being stored directly in long-term memory.
However, if the student rehearses that information repeatedly over the next several hours and days, then its trace in long-term memory will become stronger. The stronger the trace, the easier it is to retrieve.
Understanding this basic principle of repetition is one of the key findings of research on long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973). Today, it is considered common knowledge.
So is chunking, which involves organizing information into manageable smaller groups that make it easier to commit to long-term memory (Bodie et al., 2006).
For over one hundred years (Ebbinghaus, 1885/1913), research has demonstrated the value of distributed practice over massed practice in enhancing memory recall and recognition (Dunlosky et al., 2013).
Cepeda et al. (2006) conducted a meta-analysis of 254 studies which compared mass versus distributed practice on verbal memory. The studies were varied and included memory for words, sentences, and facts (i.e., semantic memory). Their results found consistent and substantial support for the superiority of distributed practice.
The principle of repetition improving long-term memory has far-reaching implications in education and academics.
2. In Understanding Eye-Witness Testimony
Various aspects of long-term memory have been examined in thousands of studies. A great deal of that research has been focused on understanding how information is stored in long-term memory and how memory can be improved.
One notable exception is the research on eye-witness testimony (Loftus, 1997). Although most people have great confidence in the accuracy of their memory, especially their episodic memories, the work of Loftus and colleagues has demonstrated that in fact, memories are incredibly malleable.
In a seminal study, 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; referred to as leading questions.
After watching a video of two cars having an accident, research participants were asked to estimate how fast the two cars were travelling upon impact:
“How fast were the two cars going when they ______ into each other?”
For some participants, the word “smashed” was used in the question, while for others, it was “contacted.”
The “eyewitnesses” estimated that the car was travelling at a much higher rate of speed when the word “smashed” was used compared to the word “contacted.”
Thus, demonstrating the ease with which episodic memory can be manipulated simply by the use of a single word.
This area of research has had a substantial impact on our understanding of eyewitness testimony, the impact of misinformation on witnesses, the role of witness confidence and lineup procedures, and expert testimony (Loftus, 2019).
Long-term memory plays a fundamental role in our daily lives, enabling us to recall past events, procedural knowledge, and learned information (Ormrod, 2017). Not all of these memories are consciously accessible, such as those covered by procedural memory, but each type is invaluable to our interaction with the world around us. At times, these memories can shape our emotional responses as seen in instances of emotional memory. Through the lens of episodic, semantic, implicit, procedural, and emotional memory, we are able to understand the breadth and depth of our long-term memory system. Indeed, our life experiences and our learned knowledge would not be the same without our long-term memory acting as our brain’s vast repository (Norris, 2017).
Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W., & Anderson, A. C. (2009). Memory. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Bodie, G. D., Powers, W. G., & Fitch-Hauser, M. (2006). Chunking, priming and active learning: Toward an innovative and blended approach to teaching communication-related skills. Interactive Learning Environments, 14(2), 119-135.
Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(3), 354.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
Ebbinghaus, H. (1913). Memory (H. A. Ruger & C. E. Bussenius, Trans.). New York, NY: Teachers College, Columbia University. (Original work published 1885).
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.
Loftus, E. F. (2019). Eyewitness testimony. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 33(4), 498-503.
Norris, D. (2017). Short-term memory and long-term memory are still different. Psychological Bulletin, 143(9), 992.
Ormrod, J. E. (2017). How we think and learn: Theoretical perspectives and practical implications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Revlin, R. (2012). Cognition: Theory and practice. New York: Macmillan.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]