Understanding the different types of memory

Read about the different types of memory, how we use our senses and how your memory works.

What are the different types of memory?

Memory is a very complex thing – there are several different types. You use these different types of memory when you do different things. It can help to know a little about them.

Working memory

You use this to store information for short periods. For example, working memory is needed to remember the numbers when you do a sum in your head.

If you have problems with your working memory you may take longer to figure something out. For example, you might need more time to pay at the supermarket till.

Episodic memory

Episodic memory is needed to recall past events – recent or distant. You use episodic memory when you remember personal experiences, such as what you had for lunch or when you attended a family gathering.

These memories often include recalling emotions or feelings. Experiences that cause strong positive or negative feelings are easier to recall many years later.

If you are struggling to recall recent memories such as where you parked the car, you may have a problem with your episodic memory.

Semantic memory

You use this to remember the meanings of words or remember facts. You also use it to remember familiar faces or objects. This knowledge is not directly tied to any personal experience – for example, you may just ‘know’ a plate is for holding food or that a phone is used to talk to people far away.

If you have a problem with your semantic memory you may have difficulty finding the right words when you are talking to someone.

Prospective memory

You use this to remember appointments, dates or events that are due to happen in the future.

If you have a problem with your prospective memory you may forget to do something at a particular time. Or you may forget that you had planned something, such as visiting a friend.

How your memory uses the senses

Your memory takes in the information provided by your senses. Our five senses are:

  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Hearing

You can recall information stored in your memory with or without the help of prompts from your senses. However, a prompt can often help.

Examples of prompts

  • A photograph of someone can prompt the memory of a forgotten name or evoke an emotion (sight).
  • A particular perfume can prompt the memory of someone special to you (smell).
  • The taste of a dish can prompt the memory of when you first ate it (taste).
  • The feeling of sand under your toes may evoke memories of a childhood holiday (touch).
  • A piece of music may bring back memories of when you first met someone special to you (hearing).

How is memory processed?

When you ‘record’ memory and then recall it, your mind goes through this process:

  • Receiving – You get a piece of information that is received through your five senses.
  • Encoding – Your brain converts this information into a form that can be stored. It is held in your short-term memory first.
  • Storing – You transfer some of the information from short-term memory into the storage of long-term memory. This can take anything from a few seconds to many months and can be helped by repeating it over and over again in your mind (known as ‘rehearsal’).
  • Retrieving – You recall the information stored in your long-term memory.

Memory problems can be caused by something going wrong at any of these stages. The way information is stored and retrieved can be very specific to the individual. It often depends on how important the information is to you, or if there is a strong emotion tied to the memory.

Try tackling memory problems even if you sometimes find it difficult. There are ways to help improve your memory and you may already use your own techniques for remembering things.

Understand more about dementia and the brain

To learn more about how dementia affects the brain, including memory, read our information.

Read our information
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