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Episodic memory: definition and associated parts of the brain

Episodic memory: definition and associated parts of the brain

May 29, 2024

Many times, when we talk about what we remember or fail to remember we are referring not to general knowledge about the world, but about ourselves and our experiences. In this case we are the main experts, and we can not talk about having more or less culture to know more or less details about our life, since we decide which parts are relevant and which are not.

This type of memory based on the memories of our lives is episodic memory , and our brain has a system of nerve cells specialized in keeping it in operation, which produces curious phenomena. Next we will see what are the characteristics of this mental capacity.


  • Related article: "Types of memory: how memory stores the human brain?"

What is episodic memory?

The one known as episodic memory is the type of memory responsible for processing and storing autobiographical information of each one and, specifically, that facet of their own experiences that can be expressed in words or images. In other words, it is the set of superior psychological processes that create narrative memories about one's own life, that for which one has passed.

The memories of childhood are the typical example of declarative memory, since they are composed of small stories, anecdotes that one has lived in the first person and are linked to information about contexts that one has gone through .


Thus, episodic memory is composed of data relating to a place and a moment located at some point in our past, regardless of whether these memories are more precise or more blurred.

On the other hand, and contrary to what for decades came to be defended from psychological currents related to psychoanalysis, these memories are almost always conscious (and, therefore, limited), although sometimes, if the footprint they left is very weak, they may disappear for a while to reappear timidly afterwards, although in no case do they return in great detail or through a phase cathartic; The case of false memories inculcated by another person is different, since they do not correspond with something that really happened.

Distinguishing it from emotional memory

Keep in mind that episodic memory overlaps a lot with another type of memory that, despite working with the first, is governed by different logics: emotional memory.


This set of mental processes is responsible for leave an emotional trace linked to past experiences , that is, something that can not be expressed in words.

For example, when we smell something that reminds us of our youth in a small town, that information goes beyond words and of what can be narrated and transmitted to others; after all, it is composed of subjective emotions. We can explain stories about the things that we live in that place, but we can not spread emotions in such a direct way, only an approximation.

In short, emotional memory is not part of the category called "declarative memory", composed of semantics and episodic memory, and therefore is not composed of concepts.

Parts of the brain involved

Possibly, the two most relevant brain structures in the functioning of episodic memory are the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex, especially that found in the temporal lobes.

The hippocampi (as there is one in each hemisphere of the brain) are structures located on the inner side of the temporal lobes, and are believed to act as a "directory" of information. That is encode memories belonging to declarative memory , and then let these migrate to other areas of the brain, spread over almost the entire cerebral cortex, which is where they are "stored" (especially important is the role of the prefrontal cortex).

In comparison, for example, emotional memory depends much more on another pair of structures known as tonsils, and not so much on hippocampi. In this way, people with damaged hippocampus can remember very little about their life and, nevertheless, preserve emotional responses to certain stimuli linked to their past: a house, a song, etc.

Disorders that damage it

Since the memories of episodic memory are distributed throughout a large part of the brain, there are many pathologies and types of accidents capable of harming it. In practice, it is the dementias that most fatten this mental capacity (along with other types of memory). The case of Alzheimer's disease is known precisely because autobiographical memories are lost as the pathology progresses.

Other diseases capable of damaging it are brain tumors, ischemia in the brain, encephalitis in one of its varieties and a large number of serious neurological disorders, such as Korsakoff's syndrome or spongiform encephalopathies that perforate nervous system tissues.


The Hippocampus and episodic memory (May 2024).


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