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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.
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1 Answer

The definitive categorization of memory is an example of semantics (an irony I enjoy in answering this question).

Firstly, you have asked four questions in one.

  • So which one is it?

Definition of semantic:

relating to meaning in language or logic.

Semantic is the imposed meaning that human beings give things.

Remembering a list of words, would be semantic memory, as the person is required to recollect a list, that has been arbitrarily compiled, as opposed to recalling the experience of reading the words.

  • Are there any large disagreements within the community of what episodic memory actually is?

Not that I am aware of, but I am not an expert and have not investigated this thoroughly.

  • Are word list tests seen as something that at least captures a small part of episodic memory?

Word list test would be capturing semantic memory, though I doubt they would form long term memory, as they are only being held for a short period of time, have no emotional context, nor form the part of pattern or logic of any semantic learning. Taking and remembering the test itself would form episodic memory, in recalling the event, time and place, with, the long term semantic memory in knowing how to do such a test. I have addressed this in more detail under the next point.

  • If remembering a list of words isn't an example of episodic memory, then what is it an example of?

To answer this, I am going to present two alternative arguments.

As episodic memory.

To regard it as episodic memory, (but short term memory, which is muddying the waters, as the information only needs to be keep in the memory for a short term and would be used within the working memory) so in terms of it being episodic, it is unlikely to be recalled effectively at a later date (for most people). I would liken it to being shown images of animals, with no purpose of pattern, except the person is asked to retain a memory of what they have seen. Like going to a museum and then being asked, what did you see there, as opposed to going to a museum and then being asked what was the history of the steam engine, which would be recalled from semantic memory of reading about the team engine at the museum.

In this context, a test of semantic memory would be to give the individual the rules of a new game and ask them to memorise them. If a person was being asked to remember the periodic table of elements, this would be semantic memory, as it would be something the person would later use as a useful pool of human defined information, like the rules of a card game.

As Semantic memory

So in terms of the concept of semantic memory being the recall of facts, as opposed to episodic memory being the recall of personal facts, it could be argued that recalling a list is using semantic memory. The list is a generic and semantic thing (human created rules, as opposed to the spontaneous and authenticity of life experience, that creates episodic memory). So regardless of the intention, it is a semantic list, that has no bearing on action or what is occurring, hence the episodic memory. The episodic memory, may be of perspiring whilst trying to recall 20 unrelated words. So the person is trying to jam 20 words into their short term memory, in a rote learning fashion. Rote memory would be regarded as semantic memory.

Rote Memory (item or semantic memory) (1)

Episodic memory could be considered explicit memory, whereas semantic memory could be considered implicit memory, as it does not require the recall of a particular event, but it the memory of a generic mental exercise, as opposed to the test itself.

The ability to use a pen and write out the test form, is an example of implicit procedural memory, the memory of a teacher leaning over you and showing you how to write is an example of explicit, declarative, episodic memory. Knowing how the testing process works is an example of implicit, declarative, semantic memory.

Semantic and episodic memory are related, both being types of declarative memory.

Types of Memory

Declarative vs. Procedural Memory

Declarative memory is recall of factual information such as dates, words, faces, events, and concepts. Remembering the capital of France, the rules for playing football, and what happened in the last game of the World Series involves declarative memory. Declarative memory is usually considered to be explicit because it involves conscious, intentional remembering.

Semantic vs. Episodic Memory

Declarative memory is of two types: semantic and episodic. Semantic memory is recall of general facts, while episodic memory is recall of personal facts. Remembering the capital of France and the rules for playing football uses semantic memory. Remembering what happened in the last game of the World Series uses episodic

Episodic memory is the memory of autobiographical events (times, places, associated emotions, and other contextual knowledge) that can be explicitly stated. It is the collection of past personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place. For example, if you remember the party on your 6th birthday, this is an episodic memory. They allow you to figuratively travel back in time to remember the event that took place at that particular time and place.

Tulving has seminally defined three key properties of episodic memory recollection. These are: a subjective sense of time (or mental time travel), connection to the self, and autonoetic consciousness. Autonoetic consciousness refers to a special kind of consciousness that accompanies the act of remembering which enables an individual to be aware of the self in a subjective time. Aside from Tulving, others named the important aspects of recollection which includes visual imagery, narrative structure, retrieval of semantic information and the feelings of familiarity.

Semantic memory refers to the memory of meanings, understandings, and other concept-based knowledge, and underlies the conscious recollection of factual information and general knowledge about the world. Semantic and episodic memory together make up the category of declarative memory, which is one of the two major divisions in memory. With the use of our semantic memory we can give meaning to otherwise meaningless words and sentences. We can learn about new concepts by applying our knowledge learned from things in the past. The counterpart to declarative, or explicit memory, is procedural memory, or implicit memory.

Semantic memory includes generalized knowledge that does not involve memory of a specific event. For instance, semantic memory is knowing how to add and subtract, whereas episodic memory is the specific memory of being taught how to subtract.

Disclaimer: I could be completely wrong.

(1) BRAIN Research Compatible Memory Strategies Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

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