Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Remembering something pleasant can make you feel happy, relaxed, and grateful. Remembering a painful experience can make you upset, angry, or sad. Memories evoke feelings, both good and bad. But memory plays even more crucial roles in our lives.
When naming the different types of memory, scientists also describe the role each type of memory plays. Without the different kinds of memory, we would not function well or manage life’s demands.
Researchers define five types of memory and the roles they play in our lives.
Sensory memory is how the brain stores the input from the world around us. According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, sensory memory stores input for a very short time, about three seconds. This is why eyewitness accounts may be inaccurate. The brain must further process information for it to stay in our memory longer.
The role of sensory memory is to allow us to experience input and determine what needs to be saved into short- and long-term memories. Sensory memory ensures that we have access to all the input and allows our brains to discard what isn’t essential. Without sensory memory, we would not notice details around us or have the input available to determine what is and isn’t important to save.
Procedural memories have been processed within the brain, so they no longer require conscious thought. Procedural memory is often referred to as muscle memory because it helps us perform physical tasks. As part of long-term memory, procedural memory is fully integrated within our brains, making it easy to recall and use.
A study published in the Organization Science journal showed that procedural memory is a key component of routine tasks. Physical actions and habits are routines stored in procedural memory.
Once you’ve learned how to walk, talk, and eat, these actions are stored in procedural memory. You don’t need to consciously pay attention every time you take a step or chew food. Without procedural memory, we would spend so much time thinking about moving and functioning in the physical world that we wouldn’t have time to think about anything else.
Semantic memory’s role is to help us use concepts, general knowledge, and language. Examples of semantic memory include:
An orange is a fruit that contains Vitamin C.
Your friend’s dog is a German Shepard breed.
Two sandwiches require four slices of bread.
You can’t afford a $110 item if you only have $100 to spend.
In these examples, semantic memory helps you identify the fruit as an orange and the dog as a German Shepard. Semantic memories tie those words to the concepts. Simple math is also part of semantic memory as general knowledge and language for number symbols. Without semantic memory, we would not be able to define the world around us using words and symbols.
Episodic memory allows us to remember past experiences in our lives. According to a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, remembering a past life experience requires more than merely recalling the input from that time.
Episodic memory blends all the input together to create a full picture of an experience, including the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, and feelings associated with the memory. Without episodic memory, what we remember wouldn’t include the feelings, good or bad, that memories provide.
Identity memory creates who we are and how we feel about ourselves. In an article in the journal Philosophy, researchers define the basis of identity because each person has their own distinct memories. School children each remember the teachers they shared in different ways. Siblings will remember family events from their own point of view.
Similar memories also help define identity within groups. Every student identifies themselves as a member of a specific school or classroom because of their memories of that period. Shared memories help people feel included as family members, employees of a company, or members of a club. Identity memory makes us who we are and affects how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us.
We need memory to navigate our lives. Memory defines us and helps us function in the world.