Examples of procedural memory include remembering how to cook your favorite recipe or knowing the steps for how to turn on a tractor.
It is considered to be a form of implicit memory and shares the characteristics of not requiring conscious effort or much cognitive capacity to perform. It happens automatically.
Procedural Memory Definition
Some scholarly definitions of procedural memory are provided below:
“Procedural memory refers to our often unexplainable knowledge of how to do things. When we walk from one place to another, speak to another person in English, dial a cell phone, or play a video game, we are using procedural memory.”(Andrade & Walker, 2021, p. 313)
“Procedural memory is a type of implicit memory: it stores information about how to do things. It is the memory for skilled actions, such as how to brush your teeth, how to drive a car, how to swim the crawl (freestyle) stroke”(Spielman, 2017, p. 259)
To achieve procedural memory, you need to go through a phase of procedural learning. Simor et al. (2019) describe procedural learning as:
“…the development of perceptual and motor skills through extensive practice is a crucial ability that facilitates efficient processing of and automatic responses to complex environmental stimuli.”(Simor et al., 2019, p. 2)
However, in order for procedural memory to meet the definition of requiring limited conscious effort and cognitive capacity (and becoming procedural knowledge), it must be repeatedly performed. Procedural memory cannot be produced by engaging a task on one occasion.
Simple Procedural Memory Examples
- Riding a bike at the age of 50 even though you haven’t ridden in over 30 years.
- Playing a well-rehearsed song on the piano while daydreaming about sunsets on the beach.
- A child in primary school that has learned to tie their shoes.
- Being able to write with pen and paper as an adult.
- A ballerina that has performed the same dance for many years.
- Being able to sing a song that you have listened to since high school.
- Making a pot of coffee, just as you have done every morning for 10 years.
- A comedian doing the same routine on a circuit of 50 cities.
- Going through the first 5 stages of a video game quickly because you have played the game forever.
- When a band plays a song in a concert that they have played for years and years.
Procedural Memory vs Declarative Memory
|Feature||Procedural Memory||Declarative Memory|
|Long-term or Short-term||Long-term||Long-term|
|Enhanced through Repetition||Yes||Yes|
|Influenced by Emotions||Yes||Yes|
|Type of Storage||Storage of skills and habits||Storage of facts|
|Degree of control||Less control and often involuntary||Highly controlled and voluntarily recalled|
|Brain Area||Basal Ganglia and Cerebellum||Hippocampus|
1. The Story of H. M.
Much of what we know about procedural memory comes from research in neuroscience. One of the very first case studies involved an individual known as patient H. M. Scientists conducted tests on his cognitive abilities for over 50 years and discovered many insights into how the brain organizes different types of memory.
H. M. began experiencing minor seizures at the age of 10 due to a bicycle accident. Unfortunately, over the next 15+ years the seizures became more frequent and intense. Eventually he had to stop working at the age of 27.
Because doctors needed to conduct surgery on his brain to reduce the seizures, some types of his memory were impaired. For example, he was unable to remember the names of people he had just met.
However, his procedural memory remained intact. Not only could he remember how to do many tasks that he had learned years prior, but he was also able to learn how to perform new tasks.
For instance, one test involved using a mirror to draw the outline of a star. Although he was able to master this task, “…at the end of testing, he had no recollection of having done the task before” (Squire, 2009, p. 8).
“The findings from H.M. established the fundamental principle that memory is a distinct cerebral function, separable from other perceptual and cognitive abilities…” (p. 6).
2. Pro-Ball Players’ “Go-To-Move”
Procedural memory is the result of repeated rehearsal of a motor task. That task could be simple, such as making a pot of coffee, or quite complex, such as playing a musical instrument. It could also involve a series of highly-coordinated athletic moves, as in dribbling a basketball while running.
In the realm of sports, professional athletes will practice the same set of moves for hours at a time, for weeks, and even throughout their career.
For instance, most professional basketball players will have several “go-to-moves.” They have practiced those moves so diligently that they can execute any one of them instantaneously in response to a particular athletic scenario.
Each go-to-move becomes a reflex.
There is no need for the player to think about moving their hands and feet in the specific patterns necessary to execute the maneuver. In fact, needing to think about the exact movements will only slow it down and render it ineffective.
3. Procedural Memory and Aging
In some ways, getting older is no picnic, while in other ways, it can bring clarity of meaning and purpose in life. One thing it usually does not bring, however, is enhanced memory (Ofen & Shing, 2013).
For example, Spencer et al. (2007) found that young adults performed better on a newly acquired procedural memory task after sleeping than older adults.
However, Müller et al. (2016) point out that previous research did not take into account participants’ backgrounds. Perhaps “Prior experience in the form of motor skill training or expertise helps to maintain motor performance across aging in different fields” (p. 1).
The researchers specify several professional fields identified in scientific studies that facilitate procedural learning. Their inexhaustive list includes:
After conducting their own study, Müller et al. (2016) write:
“…that prior knowledge enhances learning of related movements and protects against age-related decline in memory consolidation. Motor skills acquired through prior experience do not only help to maintain function in a well-trained domain, but also improve consolidation of new aspects in that domain during aging” (p. 12).
4. Operating an Espresso Machine
If you have ever gone shopping for an espresso machine, you might feel overwhelmed with choices. Some machines look more like the control panel of a high-tech gadget than something used to make a cup of coffee.
And then there’s the operation. There are multiple steps that involve the turning of knobs, pressing of powder, checking of gauges, and steaming of milk. It certainly doesn’t look simple if you’re a novice.
At first, you will need to go slowly and think carefully about the instructions for each step. However, with a few weeks of practice, most people will get the hang of it.
After a while, it will become much easier. A few more weeks at the helm, and before you know it, you’re whipping through the entire process like a seasoned barista.
And that’s the whole point of procedural memory. Everything starts out being difficult; requiring conscious effort and concentration.
But with repetition comes automaticity.
5. “Chunking” and Playing Piano
Nearly every definition of procedural memory presents playing the piano as an example. Indeed, playing the piano is an excellent example because it involves a complex sequence of movements that, when rehearsed diligently over an extended period of time, result in automaticity. The pianist can play without using much cognitive capacity at all.
The term “chunking” is often applied in the context of semantic memory. Chunking involves taking a large set of bits of information and organizing them into smaller units. It is easier to remember a smaller chunk of bits than a long string of single bits.
Interestingly, when piano students attempt to learn a new song, especially one that is complex, they are instructed to organize the individual strokes into chunks.
A pianist would never attempt to memorize an entire song at once. Instead, they organize the song into smaller chunks: harmonically, rhythmically, or melodically.
As they learn a piece, they combine smaller chunks into increasingly larger ones.
This is an interesting example of a technique used to improve semantic memory being effectively applied to a procedural memory process.
Procedural memory allows us to carry out motor activities with ease. Although some actions may be quite complex, such as playing the piano, with repetition, they become easier.
In fact, they become so easy they can be accomplished with virtually no thinking at all. That is when they reach the point of becoming automatic.
Daily life actually involves more instances of procedural memory than one might guess. For example, driving to work, typing, reading, or delivering a well-rehearsed presentation are all examples of procedural memory.
In addition to mundane tasks in daily life, professional athletes and highly-skilled musicians capitalize on the advantages of procedural memory to progress in their careers.
Mednick, S., Nakayama, K., & Stickgold, R. (2003). Sleep-dependent learning: A nap is as good as a night. Nature Neuroscience, 6(7), 697-698.
Müller, N. C., Genzel, L., Konrad, B. N., Pawlowski, M., Neville, D.,
Fernández, G., et al. (2016). Motor skills enhance procedural memory
formation and protect against age-related decline. PLoS ONE 11(6):e0157770.
Ofen, N, & Shing, Y. L. (2013). From perception to memory: Changes in memory systems across the lifespan. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(9), 2258–2267. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev
Simor, P., Zavecz, Z., Horváth, K., Éltető, N., Török, C., Pesthy, O., Gombos, F., Janacsek, K., Nemeth, D. (2019). Deconstructing procedural memory: Different learning trajectories and consolidation of sequence and statistical learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02708
Spencer, R. M. C, Gouw, A. M., & Ivry, R. B. (2007). Age-related decline of sleep-dependent consolidation. Learning & Memory, 14, 480–484. https://doi.org/10.1101/lm.569407