15 Semantic Memory Examples

semantic memory examples and definition

Semantic memory refers to the long-term storage of facts and is a form of declarative memory. Examples of semantic memory include remembering definitions of concepts, historical dates, and the names of people, places, and things.

Theoretically, semantic memory has unlimited capacity. However, memory does decay over time and is also subject to various kinds of interference that can delete information.

Although sometimes information in semantic memory can be automatically activated, generally speaking, retrieval requires conscious intention and mental effort.

Semantic Memory Definitions

Scholarly definitions of semantic memory include:

  • “Semantic memory consists of your entire knowledge base including your vocabulary, concepts, and ideas.” (Levy, 2013, p. 206)
  • “Semantic memory is our storehouse of more-or-less permanent knowledge, such as the meanings of words in a language (e.g., the meaning of “parasol”) and the huge collection of facts about the world (e.g., there are 196 countries in the world, and 206 bones in your body).” (Kearns & Lee, 2015, p. 155)

Semantic Memory vs Episodic Memory

Endel Tulving (1972; 1983) is recognized as one of the pioneers in the study of long-term memory and has made many significant contributions to our present-day understanding.

He saw semantic and episodic memory as two types of declarative (aka ‘explicit memory‘). See graph below.

types of long-term memory, reproduced as text in the appendix

One of his first insights was to make a distinction between semantic and episodic memory (memory for experiences), stating that:

“…one system can operate independently of the other,” and most likely are “governed at least partially by different principles” (1983; p. 66), although both systems 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”).”

Read About More Types of Long-Term Memory Here

Semantic Memory Examples

  • Memorizing the names and birthdates of all of your relatives, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, plus cousins.  
  • Responding to your competition’s remarks during a debate by citing key facts from research.     
  • Labeling each part of the brain involved in reading comprehension. 
  • Learning the words for various fruits and vegetables in a foreign language.      
  • A third-grader taking a fill-in-the-blank test naming all parts of a volcano.  
  • Participating in a spelling-bee.
  • Filling in a timeline that shows the historical events that led to the Civil Rights Movement.   
  • Writing a paper that compares and contrasts two novels in English literature.         
  • Memorizing the defining characteristics of different styles of architecture.   
  • Being able to cite key team stats of your favorite basketball team’s game last week.          

See more examples of long-term memory here

Detailed Examples

1. The Animal Classification System

Scientists use a taxonomy of classification to categorize all living things. All living organisms, plants and animals, are grouped together based on commonly shared characteristics.

There are 8 taxonomic ranks that are arranged from broadest to most narrow. As groups become smaller, the members become more similar.

Biology students have to memorize the classification system and know the placement of the living things they study. That means putting a lot of information in semantic memory.

Remembering taxonomic ranks can be confusing, so many students rely on a mnemonic: “Daring King Phillip came over for good spaghetti.”

  • Domain
  • Kingdom
  • Phylum
  • Class
  • Order
  • Family
  • Genus
  • Species

Responding to exam questions about this system requires committing the information to semantic memory and then retrieving it.

2. The GeoBee

Beginning in 1989, the National Geographic Society held an annual geography contest, commonly referred to as the GeoBee. Over the years, millions of students, educators, and parents have been involved in this exhilarating tournament.

Starting at the local school level, students participated in competitions and moved their way up to state, regional, and eventually the final rounds.

The competition involved knowing basic Earth facts, including the highest, lowest, and deepest points around the world, in addition to the location of countries, bodies of waters, and major physical features of the planet.

That is an incredible amount of data to commit to long-term semantic memory.

Although the GeoBee was discontinued in 2022, you can still take advantage of a wealth of resources available at the Resource Library.

3. Debate 

Participating in a debate can be an exciting, or nerve-wracking, experience. Although there are many versions of formal debate, the fundamental goal is to present a set of well-researched and grounded arguments that support a given position.

The key term here is “well-researched and grounded.” That means that whenever a participant presents their views, they must back-up their position with facts.

Simply giving an opinion that is solely based on one’s personal view is a sure-fire way to lose.

In preparation for a debate, research is paramount. That means hours of studying published articles in the arts and social sciences. Key terms and concepts must be committed to memory and then organized to formulate a coherent and logical position on the issue at hand.

During the debate itself, those points must be retrieved from semantic memory and presented to the competition and judges.

Although there can be some differences in the basic structure of debates, the essential role of semantic memory stays the same.

4. Writing an Essay: Semantic Memory 

Writing an excellent essay may seem straightforward on the surface. However, it actually involves an extensive series of steps. First, one must conduct the necessary research. That involves reading various articles and books, or perhaps watching a documentary or biographical account of an historical figure.

At each instance, the student must determine which information is the most pertinent and then make a conscious effort to place that information in semantic memory. That does not happen instantaneously for most and usually requires considerable repetition.

Once the information has been placed in long-term semantic memory, it must then be retrieved at the moment of writing the essay.

The retrieval process also requires cognitive effort and conscious intention. One must initiate a search through the memory store, locate the targeted data, and bring it into consciousness.

Assuming the necessary information was placed into storage to begin with, and assuming it did not decay over time, one must also hope that it has been retrieved in its most accurate form and not accidentally jumbled with other information.

After all of that, one can begin formulating an organized and coherent essay, assuming the question was read correctly.

5. Semantic Memory Network and Spreading Activation

Collins and Loftus (1975; Anderson, 2013) suggested that semantic information is stored similar to a concept map. Each concept is represented in the network as a node, with each node connected via links, called arcs.

The stronger the association between two concepts, the closer in the network the nodes appear. For example, the concepts of “doctor” and “nurse” will be more closely connected than the concepts of “doctor” and “keyboard.”

The network model of semantic memory also postulates that when one concept is activated, other concepts that are closely linked will also be activated.

The stronger the association, the easier the activation. That activation will then spread throughout the network until it eventually loses momentum.

In the words of Collins and Loftus:

“The more properties two concepts have in common, the more links there are between the two nodes via these properties and the more closely related are the concepts…When a concept is processed (or stimulated), activation spreads out along the paths of the network in a decreasing gradient” (p. 411).

Conclusion

Semantic memory stores factual information, including the definition of terms and concepts. Theoretically, it has unlimited storage and lasts forever. Practically speaking, information fades over time and is subject to interference, which can cause some information to be deleted.

Semantic memory is used in many aspects of life. When trying to formulate a coherent essay, or when engaged in a debate in which we support our position with facts, we are utilizing semantic memory.

Similarly, memorizing the taxonomic classification of various living organisms or physical features of the planet rely on semantic memory.

Information in semantic memory is stored structurally similar to a concept map. Related concepts are closely connected. When one concept is stimulated, activation spreads throughout the network and activates other concepts.

References

Anderson, J. R. (2013). Language, memory, and thought. Psychology Press.

Collins, A. M., & Quillian, M. R. (1969). Retrieval time from semantic memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 8(2), 240-247.

Collins, W. M., & Loftus, E. F. (1975). A spreading-activation theory of semantic processing. Psychological Review, 82(6), 407-428.

Faul, L. & LaBar, K. (2022). Mood-congruent memory revisited. Psychological Review. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000394

Riedel, W. J., & Blokland, A. (2015). Declarative memory. Cognitive Enhancement, 215-236.

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

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.

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)

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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