Carole Carson: Are your 6 memory systems working? |

Carole Carson: Are your 6 memory systems working?

By Carole Carson | Special to The Union

In “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley wrote, “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”

Our memory capabilities are no exception. We seldom pay attention to how our brain processes information, stores memories and recalls information — unless, of course, we notice a deficit.

Then we’re eager to learn what caused the shortfall and how best to preserve our remaining faculties.


Six kinds of memory, plus two subsets, have been identified. A seventh is being debated.

Short-term: Lasting only 20 to 30 seconds, short-term memory (sometimes called working memory) stores information temporarily before dismissing it or assigning it to long-term storage.

Long-term: Depending on how often we use the information, a memory can be quickly discarded or placed in long-term storage for repeated use.

Prospective: Best described as remembering to remember, this memory is critical for individuals in demanding careers and serious multi-taskers. For the rest of us, grocery lists and notes on the calendar keep us functioning competently.

Implicit: This memory is stored unconsciously and requires no prompting. For example, I haven’t ridden a bike in years, yet I could still ride one today. Language is another example. I don’t think about words when I speak. I rely on my implicit memory of vocabulary.

Procedural: This memory system makes actions automatic. We drive a car without thinking about how to start it, steer, accelerate or brake. Another example would be walking. Although we learned how to walk as toddlers, from then on we know what to do.

Explicit: These memories require concentration to recall. For instance, I can remember several of my former home addresses or my friends in grade school if I focus on them.

Explicit memories are subdivided into semantic and episodic.

Semantic: This system keeps track of our knowledge of the world. For instance, we know that ice is cold and the sun rises and sets daily.

Episodic: This memory keeps track of the idiosyncratic moments in our lives that have special meaning for us alone.

The memorable event could be a happy one, like waking up on Christmas morning to discover a new bike under the tree.

Or an unhappy one, such as, in my case, being home from school dreadfully sick with the flu, lying on the davenport in the living room, and smelling coffee cake my mother was baking.

Even today, I can’t smell coffee cake without recalling the misery of the flu.

Episodic memories typically involve the senses and can be considered iconic (visual), echoic (sound) or haptic (touch).

The more powerful the emotions and senses during the time episodic memories are created, the more powerful the ability to recall them.

Their recall, however, is notoriously unreliable. Not only do we revise the memory over time, but we view the memory from the vantage point of our intervening experiences, which distort what actually occurred.

Genetic memory: Whether such a memory system exists is hotly debated. But the idea does explain how some children know things they were never taught.

For example, John von Neumann joked with his father in classical Greek at age 6. Mozart played the harpsichord at 3 and composed his first published music at age 5.

Picasso, whose first words were to ask for a pencil to draw, completed his first oil painting at 9, a work commended by critics.

The mystery of how these young children acquired their advanced understanding of language, music syntax or art is explained by assuming they were born factory-equipped with memory chips.


Scientists tell us that our brains are faster and more powerful than supercomputers and that they contain about 100 billion microscopic neurons.

Chemical and electrical signals race along billions of tiny neuron highways. Information speeds along at 156 to 270 miles per hour.

What could possibly go wrong with this complex creation? Evidently, a lot.

Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” But even powerful knowledge without action is impotent. Learn ways to protect your brain in Part Two, set for Feb. 17: “How Memory Gets Damaged.”

Carole Carson, of Nevada City, is an author, former AARP website contributor, leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown and guest speaker for The Union’s Longevity Project on Feb. 27. She can be reached at


This three-part series on memory begins with the different kinds of memory systems. Next week covers conditions that diminish memory. The final article is about the factors that enhance memory.


What: Virtual Zoom event from 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 27

More info: The Longevity Project is a virtual event that celebrates living a long, healthy life. Hear stories from those who are living long and healthy lives and how they are still thriving. Also learn from experts on what you can do to bring longevity to your life. Topics include: Quigong and tai chi with Homer Nottingham; brain health with Carole Carson; dental health with Dr. Sean Rockwell; nutrition with Kelly Hull of Dignity Health; and emotional health with Keith Thompson of Anew Day.

Register: To learn how you can live a long healthy life, sign up at:

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