I'm having a hard time making a clear distinction between semantic and episodic memory. When presented with idealized examples, I find the breakdown clear; describing a trip to Paris is an example of episodic memory, describing the structure of a cell is an example of semantic memory.
However, when it comes to experimental settings, things suddenly start to look more murky. For example, say that one is presented 20 words in a sequential fashion and then is asked to repeat as many of these as possible. Are we dealing with episodic memory then? Does it make any difference if one is forced to recollect them in the same order as they appeared? Many researchers seem to consider this situation an example of episodic memory (just as an example, see van der Helm et al., 2011), and indeed, the man who invented the concept of episodic memory also did so at the time of its conception (Tulving, 1972; p.390).
However, later, Tulving has revised his original definition. In a more recent article (Tulving, 2002) he writes:
I had been wrong in 1972 when I had assumed that the traditional, Ebbinghaus-inspired, study/test laboratory experiments of verbal learning and memory had dealt with episodic memory. They had not. Two important features of episodic memory were missing.
One had to do with the contents of what the subjects in the experiments had to learn. Episodic memory is about happenings in particular places at particular times, or about “what,” “where,” and “when” [...] Traditional laboratory experiments, however, were almost invariably concerned with “what.” Subjects are asked, “What do you remember of the presented material?” They report their knowledge in tests such as free recall, cued recall, or recognition. Subjects’ memory for “where” and “when” was hardly ever examined.
The other missing feature was what I referred to in Elements as “recollective experience,” or conscious awareness of what had happened in the past. In traditional experiments the experimenter assumes that the overt behavioral response reflects the subject’s mental state; that is, that behavior is a faithful index of cognition. The reasoning goes something like this: Surely, if the subject recognizes an item in a recognition test, it means that he remembers it from the list, that is, that he has a conscious recollection of the item’s occurrence in the study list. How could it possibly be otherwise?
As subsequent history showed, it could be otherwise. Research on implicit memory [...], or so-called nonconscious memory [...], has overwhelmingly proved that one and the same behavioral response in a study/test experiment could represent conscious awareness of the retrieved item’s experimental history as readily as it could represent total lack of such awareness.
So which one is it? Are there any large disagreements within the community of what episodic memory actually is? Are word list tests seen as something that at least captures a small part of episodic memory? If remembering a list of words isn't an example of episodic memory, then what is it an example of?
- van der Helm, E.; Gujar, N.; Nishida, M; Walker, M.P. (2011).Sleep-Dependent Facilitation of Episodic Memory Details. PLoS ONE, 6(11).
- Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving and W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of Memory (pp. 381-402). New York: Academic Press.
- Tulving, E. (2002). Episodic memory: From mind to brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 1-25.