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What is Declarative Memory?

By Dr. Usmarah Hussain

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What is Declarative Memory

Memories are a part of what truly makes us human. The first steps, the first day at school, the wedding day, etc., are all precious moments that our brain captures and stores in its permanent memory box. But did you know that memory can be of different types? Not everything you experience in life is essentially stored in the same way but rather differently depending on the nature and content of the memories.

This article will shed light on an important type of memory called declarative memory, how it is formed, its types, and tips to improve it.

What is Declarative Memory?

Memory can be broken down into distinct categories depending on the type of content they include. Essentially, these memories are either long-term or short-term and differ based on how long the brain keeps them. Long-term memories typically have a relatively unlimited reserve in contrast to short-term memory, which is briefer.

Declarative memory is a subtype of long-term memory corresponding to the information you can declare, consciously remember, or recall. The brain takes help from specific structures called declarative memory systems responsible for converting short-term memories into long-term memories to form this type of memory.

So how does the brain form declarative memories? The process can be broken down into three simple steps:

Step 1: Encoding

At this stage, the body senses perceive information from the environment and forward it to the brain. From here, the information makes its way into the memory box, where it undergoes processing. Processing can be shallow (focusing on color, size, or physical features) or deep (focusing on the relationship of an item with something else).

Step 2: Storage

Once a memory is processed and encoded, it is ready to enter the brain’s storage area. In this area, the brain can maintain different memories for longer time durations. Sometimes, the brain may store a single long-term memory in other parts of the brain. For example, the visual parts may get stored in the area linked with vision, and the auditory parts may get stored in the area associated with hearing.

Step 3: Retrieval

Retrieval indicates a process where the brain recalls information that has already been encoded and stored as a memory. This process occurs as a response to retrieval cues, i.e., anything that prompts you to search for a particular memory. For example, if someone asks you a question, it will be your cue to go through your stored memories to find specific information. Sometimes, memory retrieval happens effortlessly, while other times, it may require a bit of work.

What are the Types of Declarative Memory?

Declarative memory is broadly classified into two types: semantic and episodic memory. Each of these types is briefly described below.[1]

Episodic Memory

Episodic memory contains information based on specific episodes or events that have happened throughout life. These events are typically associated with personal life events and history. Some examples of episode memory include the following:

  • The first day at school
  • The name of your second-grade teacher
  • The setting of your first date with your partner

Semantic Memory

This type of memory includes conceptual or factual information which is based more on knowledge rather than personal experiences: Some examples include the following:

  • Understanding the difference between a cat and a bird
  • Understanding complex math formulas
  • Knowing the current president of America
  • Associating words with their definitions and meanings

What Affects Declarative Memory? An Evidence-Based Overview

A study that took place in 1997 demonstrated that high-stress levels significantly impact how we form declarative memories.[2]As a part of this research study, participants underwent a three-stage process which included:

  • Stage one: Memorizing a series of words
  • Stage two: A stressful situation, for example, public speaking or a non-stressful task
  • Stage three: Recalling the series of words from stage one

Results showed that people exposed to a stressful situation had poorer declarative memory performance than those who underwent a non-stressful task in the middle.

Further research into the topic has revealed that chronic stress in people with post-traumatic stress disorder also affects the ability of an individual to form declarative memories. In a famous study of 1953, a patient who had parts of his hippocampus, medial temporal lobe, and amygdala removed to manage his epilepsy was evaluated for his declarative and procedural memory capabilities.[3] Experts found that he could not form declarative memories after surgery but could form new short-term and procedural memories.

Other studies have revealed that slow-wave sleep impacts the ability to form declarative memories. This type of memory mainly benefits from sleep periods where slow-wave sleep dominates the brain. REM sleep, on the other hand, has not been found to enhance declarative memory.

How to Test Your Declarative Memory

You can do plenty of tasks and exercises to test both components of your declarative memory.

For episodic memory, check if you can recall the date you made your first Facebook account, or try recalling the name of your kindergarten teacher. Try to begin with simpler things, like the year you are currently in, and slowly increase the difficulty level. Another way to test episodic memory is by asking someone specific details about their life. For example, you may ask them about their exact whereabouts about two weeks ago or tell them to name the place where they had dinner last Monday. If they can answer correctly, their episodic memory is doing its job well.

Semantic memory, on the other hand, is similar to a mental dictionary since it helps users remember bookish knowledge, meanings, and concepts in their cultural context. To test this type of declarative memory, ask a person to define a few words by giving examples. For example, you may ask them to explain what “theory” means and prompt them to give a few examples. If they correctly place these words with their definitions, it means their semantic memory is intact.

Is it Possible to Improve Your Declarative Memory?

Are you looking for different ways to fine-tune your memory as much as possible? Consider following the tips mentioned below to boost your long-term declarative memory while minimizing memory loss.

Get plenty of sleep

Sleep is crucial if you wish to consolidate your memories and recall them later with no issues. If you are trying to put something into your long-term memory, recall it once before going to sleep for good results.

Avoid multitasking

Nothing divides your attention as much as multitasking does. It can significantly disrupt your memory-encoding process and make declarative memory formation difficult.

Stay active

Exercise can increase blood flow to all body parts, including your brain. Try to incorporate 150 minutes of aerobic exercise into your weekly routine. Even walking for 15 minutes every day can do the trick. 

Exercise your brain

While you are exerting your body, don’t forget that your brain needs exercise too. Do things that make you think, like learning a new skill or solving a crossword puzzle.

Maintain a healthy diet

Maintain a healthy diet rich in brain-nourishing foods, such as fatty fish and leafy greens.

Keep yourself organized

Keep yourself as organized as possible. Some things to do in this aspect include making to-do lists, keeping a diary of all appointments, etc. If you are trying to learn a new skill, write your outlines or summaries to keep yourself engaged in active learning.

The Bottom Line

Declarative memory is what makes you recall some of the most important days of your life. At the same time, it also makes sure you do well in your presentations and ace your exams. So no matter how busy your life gets, always take time to polish these memory-building skills to ensure that you keep cherishing your precious memories for as long as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

What parts of the brain are involved in the formation of declarative memory?

The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are the two main areas of the brain involved in declarative memory formation. The prefrontal cortex lies in front of the cerebral cortex and processes incoming information. This area is crucial for the formation of short-term memories and associated tasks. On the other hand, the hippocampus plays a role in encoding information from short-term memories into long-term memories.

What is the difference between episodic and semantic memory?

Episodic and semantic memories are both types of declarative memory, yet they are quite different from one another. Episodic memory includes information about personal life, such as the name of your first pet or the make and model of your first care. Alternatively, knowing that the root square of 49 is 7 is purely knowledge-based and factual without any personal association. Hence, it is an example of semantic memory.

How is declarative memory different from procedural memory?

Declarative memory includes events and facts that you can declare or consciously recall. Also known as explicit memory, it bases on the concept that it is possible for the human brain to explicitly store and retrieve information. Procedural memory, on the other hand, includes deeply-embedded skills like the use of body movements or objects without being aware of performing them consciously.


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