Semantic Memory: Definition & Exercises

What is semantic memory? Tulving was the first to establish the term of semantic memory. Semantic memory  can be defined  as a type of  memory of meanings and general knowledge  in which our concrete experiences do not intervene, nor the memory of specific events.

For example, to answer the question “how many hours a day has” does not need to evoke any particular moment of our life in which we have learned that knowledge. Semantic memory allows us to “automatically” remember that one day has 24 hours, without needing to evoke concrete events that remind us of that knowledge.

Semantic memory is necessary to remember the concepts we have about the world, and also, it is necessary to make proper use of language. In addition, it is a kind of memory that is stored in the long term , so once you have acquired a knowledge, you can even stay the whole life.

Semantic memory is as extensive as the knowledge we can have. For example, if we want to remember that the lion is a mammal and has 4 legs, it will not be necessary to relate it to any specific event that has happened to us with lions, our head goes much faster.

  • Semantic memory is a type of long-term memory: it allows us to store memories for days, decades or years. It has no capacity or duration limit.
  • Semantic memory is declarative:  This means that we access it in a conscious way.
  • Differences between episodic memory and semantic memory : Episodic memory is responsible for providing us with autobiographical memories, such as “what have I eaten today?” Or “What did I do on the weekend?” Therefore, the great difference between these two types of memory is that semantic memory is a dictionary of words and events of the world without recourse to our experience, and episodic memory is like a personal diary formed by our experiences .

Where are words located in our brain?  A science team has created an interactive map that shows which areas of the brain are activated by listening to different words. This semantic brain map reveals how language is distributed through the cortex and the two cerebral hemispheres , grouping words by meanings, and building a huge brain dictionary.

What is the use of semantic memory?

Semantic memory serves us as a mental dictionary, to organize that amount of words, concepts, and symbols that we store, giving them a meaning. Semantic memory allows us to save cognitive resources, and to be able to interpret in a short time, and with few words, the world in which we live.

Semantic memory is fundamental for our day to day life. For example, semantic memory allows us to “automatically” know that a lion is a mammal, without having to mentally review all the lions we have seen in our lives, or think about the types of lions that exist.

Our semantic memory allows us to give a general meaning to the word “lion”: mammal animal of four legs, big, with much hair surrounding his head, etc.

If we were to think of all the lions in the world to be able to remember and describe them, it would be impossible. Therefore, semantic memory is the greatest guarantee that we can encompass multiple concrete concepts (animals, people, objects …) in a single with general concept. This will be organized through an infinite number of categories (animals, objects, living beings, non-living beings, mammals, reptiles, etc.).

Rheumatic Heart Disease

Alterations of semantic memory: Access disorders and semantic storage

    • People with semantic dementia : They have problems in order to find the meaning of the concepts. There is great diversity between some patients and others, semantic dementia is characterized by patients who may have difficulty accessing the meanings of concepts, but they do not have to have problems using schematics (eg ironing)
    • Persons with lesions in the prefrontal cortex : Evidence has been found that patients with a prefrontal cortex lesion may have difficulty developing a scheme, but not for the meaning of the words (unlike the previous example). These people are therefore unable to use a scheme such as going to the dentist when they have a problem in their mouth, or doing the laundry when they want to do laundry, but instead can access the concepts of words.
    • In Alzheimer’s disease a typical characteristic is a failure in episodic memory (in autobiographical memories), but without doubt, semantic memory is also affected, since these patients tend to develop disorders in language and in the use of Schemes.

Exercises to improve semantic memory



1- Remember the facts of the world around us

It is good to remember facts from the world around us : If a person wants to strengthen semantic memory, the most effective exercises are to remember a series of words, and increase the quantity, and also the difficulty. For example, learn the provinces of Spain, then the capitals of Europe, and increase until you can know all the capitals of the world. Here you can find other brain exercises  very useful.

Spiders on drugs

2- Learn new languages ​​and travel

Learning another language forces us to start a new vocabulary, a new structure, new rules in the language. Semantic memory is essential for all of this.

Traveling can also help to learn new schemes and new scripts, since the customs and culture of each country can vary a lot and the diagrams and scripts help us to adapt according to the situation.

3- Establish meanings by understanding what we learn

How does the brain learn ? All the investigations have pointed out that one learns better, and faster, giving a meaning to the concepts. For example, to study, we remember much better what we have given meaning than what we have learned by mere repetition of words.

The Periodic table song

4- Exercises for patients with disorder in semantic memory

There are simple exercises in which you write a series of basic questions, which the patient has to answer, and if they are wrong, corrected in front of them. For example, questions such as “What are the four seasons of the year?”, “What are the months?”, “What are the numbers from 1 to 15?”.

Also in people with disorder in semantic memory it is very effective to start incomplete sentences for them to continue, and then correct it: “Lemons are colored …”, “The capital of Spain is …”, etc.

Semantic memory is so important in our lives that if we thought for a moment every time we used it a day, we would be surprised. It helps us to talk, to communicate, to learn what each concept in the world means and to be able to understand it by giving it meaning. By all this, it seems a miracle that we have a dictionary so broad and so well organized, in front of the multitude of stimuli that surround us . If we had to learn every day again, without being able to remember what we perceive and without giving it a meaning, it would be an almost unassuming effort. Semantic memory is the largest cognitive savings, because thanks to it, we can store the world we perceive in our head.

It helps us to know what diag- noses to have every day (if I have a health problem, I go to the doctor), and to follow scripts that we do almost automatically (go to a restaurant, wait for them to take care of you, order, etc.).