Psychology - Episodic and Semantic Memory

Episodic and Semantic Memory

“Episodic Memory” : memory for experiences “Semantic Memory” : memory for facts

The differences between episodic and semantic memory can be described in three aspects:

  1. experience
  2. how brain damage affects each one
  3. fMRI imaging


Episodic memory involves mental time travel.

  • self-knowing / remembering

Recalling semantic memory does NOT involve personal experiences.

  • knowing

Neuropsychology (Brain Damage)

K.C. : hippocampus and surrounding structures damaged in accident.

  • episodic memory is lost
  • cannot recall personal experiences, but know facts

    • his brother’s death: know it happened, but remembers no experiences.

Italian woman: encephalitis

  • fever, headaches
  • could not recognize familiar faces
  • meaning of words, location of things, historical facts, etc. are forgotten
  • STILL remembers her life, experiences.

Brain imaging

Brian Levine (2004)

  • Subjects audiotape their daily experiences
  • When listening to those tape, their brain was scanned by fMRI
  • Result:
    • audiotape of experiences vs audiotape of facts
      • some common areas activated
      • major differences

Interaction Between Episodic and Semantic Memory

  1. Semantic Memory affecting Episodic Memory

knowledge guides our attention and thus produces different experiences.

  1. Autobiography contains both episodic and semantic memory.

Autobiographical memory is memory for specific experiences from our life, which can include both episodic and semantic components.

  • semantic components:
    • table was hard to get
    • having been to a place
  • episodic components:
    • meeting a person

Table 1: Summary of Episodic, Semantic and Autobiographical Memory

EpisodicMemory for specific personal experiences, involving mental time travel back in time to achieve a feeling of reliving the experience.I remember going to get coffee at Le Buzz yesterday morning and talking with Gil and Mary about their bike trip
SemanticMemory for factsThere is a Starbucks down the road from Le Buzz.
AutobiographicalPeople’s memories for experiences from their own lives. These memories have both episodic components and semantic components. These semantic components are called personal semantic memories.I met Gil and Mary at Le Buzz yesterday morning. We sat at our favorite table near the window, which is often difficult to get in the morning when the coffee shop is busy.
  1. Knowledge about public figures involves both semantic and episodic memory.


  • Oprah Winfrey had a television program: semantic
  • watching the show : episodic

Westmacott and Moskovitch

autobiographically significant semantic memories: Memories about facts involving personal episodes

  • recalls names better when there are autobiographically significant events.