The semantic memory concerns the knowledge of the world and language. Thanks to semantic memory we can remember, for example, the number of days in the week and what they are.
Semantic memory is involved in storing our knowledge about the world, it is our “mental encyclopedia”. It stores words, ideas and concepts. Semantic memory is a long-term memory, so once we have acquired knowledge, it can be retained for a long time.
This memory governs our relationship with the environment because it stores:
- the names of objects
- their functions, characteristics and uses
- the names of abstract concepts
- general knowledge
Semantic memory works by association of categories
Our brain can process information stored in semantic memory. This allows us to make associations between our knowledge and to understand the world or to do more complex thinking. Here is an example of an automatic process we can have thanks to semantic memory:
- A cat is a feline,
- A feline is an animal,
- A cat is therefore an animal.
Semantic memory is, in a way, the dictionary of our knowledge about the world, as opposed to episodic memory which deals with autobiographical facts or events, i.e. everything that concerns us.
Catherine Meyer tells us more in her book “Les nouveaux pays. What we know today about the human mind”.
What is the difference between semantic memory and episodic memory?
It was Endel Tulving who, in 1972, proposed to distinguish two types of memory:
- Episodic memory
- Semantic memory
One is the memory of experience, of events that occur in our lives, a kind of biographical memory. And the other is the memory of knowledge and general facts.
To use an example that Tulving often quotes, we use our semantic memory when we say that Paris is the capital of France, and our episodic memory when we remember our trip to Paris, during the vacations, and the visit of the Eiffel Tower…
Today, most scientists have accepted the theory of episodic memory. After having suffered certain brain lesions, it happens that one is deprived of episodic memory: one can carry out new learning, one can thus make new memories, albeit with difficulty, but it is impossible to remember the origin of these learnings. This was the case with a patient who came to Tulving’s clinic for treatment. She was taught certain information, such as “the sun melts the asphalt”. At the end of the sessions, she was asked, “What does the sun melt?” and she replied, “Asphalt. But, when asked how she knew this, it was discovered that she had no idea how she had learned it.
Semantic memory disorders
Following an incident, a trauma or an illness, it is possible to have an alteration of the semantic memory. It is therefore possible to have difficulty learning new concepts or finding the right words.
- Semantic dementia: in this case there is a difficulty in understanding the meaning of a concept, in finding its meaning. On the other hand, this is fluid when it comes to following a pattern (if I have vision problems I go to the optician).
- Lesions in the prefrontal cortex: in this case, the person manages to understand all the words he hears and gives them the right meaning. But he or she cannot make connections between concepts and create or follow patterns.
- Alzheimer’s disease: one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is the forgetting of words. Semantic memory is affected in this disease and this can be one of the first symptoms leading to an early diagnosis. Recognizing the symptoms of this disease early on can help to better support people with Alzheimer’s disease during the course of the disease.
Exercises to train and improve your semantic memory
Semantic memory is a cognitive function that can be improved throughout our lives. We can train it from a preventive point of view, but also to recover skills lost due to an illness.
- Learning new languages or traveling: learning new languages can help discover new words and make associations that keep the brain active. For example, traveling can help the brain discover concepts, cultures and people, memorize them and make connections with what it knows. Learning a new language is easier when you are young, but travel is appropriate and useful at any age and also for people with an illness.
- Reading: reading books can be useful to learn new words or not to forget the ones you already know. Also reading newspapers is very recommended to train semantic memory.
- Use semantic memory training applications: there are different applications that can be used. There are crossword puzzle applications or applications like the Dynseo programs, Scarlett and Clint, which offer varied and fun activities to work on several cognitive functions, including semantic memory.