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Semantic Memory

Semantic Memory

BIBLIOGRAPHY

In 1972 the cognitive scientist Endel Tulving (b. 1927) argued that conscious recollection (i.e., declarative memory) is composed of two separate memory domains, each having distinct functionality, knowledge access, and neurological localization. Whereas episodic memory involves our conscious recall of past events within some specific context, semantic memory involves our recall of factual knowledge that is not context-dependent.

Psychologists have assessed semantic memory through a large array of tests. For example, in recalling a previously studied list of words, participants often recall groups of words in sequence (i.e., cluster) on the basis of thematic or taxonomic relations, even though the words were ordered randomly at presentation. Measures of the time required to make various forms of judgments also reflect semantic memory structure. Variation in the time required to name visually presented words, or to discriminate words from nonwords (lexical decision), reflects access to semantic information about words. Similarly, the time required to make category judgments, such as whether a robin is a bird, can be used to infer some properties of semantic memory structure.

Analyses of lexical access and category judgment tasks have led to the development of network models, which describe how the components of semantic information (e.g., concepts) are organized within semantic memory. In a hierarchical network model, for example, access to each lower-level item depends on the higher-order category (e.g., robinbird). In contrast, other models propose that semantic memory is not organized hierarchically, though information is related to varying degrees. In these latter models, memory retrieval occurs in parallel, as a result of the activation of related information within the network. Recently, connectionist models have furthered this notion and have depicted semantic memory networks as highly distributed yet unitary systems whose multiple elements work largely in parallel.

The network and connectionist models are based on accounts of behavioral data and mathematical simulation. The question of how semantic and episodic memory abilities are represented in the brain is currently controversial. Studies of neurological patients suggest that damage to medial temporal regions of the brain can impair episodic memory while leaving semantic memory largely intact. Neuroimaging studies of healthy individuals also indicate some degree of differentiation in the pattern of brain activation occurring during episodic and semantic memory tasks, but there is also a substantial degree of overlap. Though details vary according to task demands, neuroimaging research suggests that left prefrontal regions, medial temporal regions, ventral visual processing areas, the hippocampal formation, and parts of parietal cortex can all play a role in semantic memory processing. Accessing semantic information, however, can also be a form of episodic encoding. That is, the best way to prepare for a later episodic test is to encode the meaning of the information to be remembered (as opposed to its physical structure). Typically, the left prefrontal region of the brain is implicated in both semantic retrieval and episodic encoding, and the right prefrontal region is implicated in episodic memory retrieval. This complex network of cortical involvement reflects the growing recognition among researchers that semantic memory comprises several component processes.

SEE ALSO Neuroeconomics

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chang, Tien Ming. 1986. Semantic Memory: Facts and Models. Psychological Bulletin 99 (2): 199220.

Martin, Alex, and Linda L. Chao. 2001. Semantic Memory and the Brain: Structure and Processes. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 11 (2): 194201.

Matthew C. Costello

David J. Madden

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Semantic Memory

Semantic memory

The part of long-term memory dealing with words, their symbols, and meanings.

Semantic memory allows humans to communicate with language. In semantic memory, the brain stores information about words, what they look like and represent, and how they are used in an organized way. It is unusual for a person to forget the meaning of the word "dictionary," or to be unable to conjure up a visual image of a refrigerator when the word is heard or read. Semantic memory contrasts with episodic memory, where memories are dependent upon a relationship in time. An example of an episodic memory is "I played in a piano recital at the end of my senior year in high school."

The "tip of the tongue" phenomenon provides some insight into the way information is stored in semantic memory. Most people have experienced this situation where they are trying to recall a person's name. As the person searches through his or her memory for the name Stern, for example, he or she will recall other similar namesStone, Steinbut not Douglas or Zimmer. Semantic memory appears to categorize information that has similar meaning (in this case, surnames), that begins with the same letter, and has the same number of syllables.

Words and other memories that are stored in semantic memory contribute to episodic memory and the two work together to function as an effective long-term memory system.

Further Reading

Bolles, Edmund Blair. Remembering and Forgetting: Inquiries Into the Nature of Memory. New York: Walker and Co.,1988.

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