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March 18, 2020

The different types of long-term memory

by Kristy Castleton
Neuroexperience - Chainsmokers - Mastercard Priceless

What does the capital of Thailand, an encounter with Mickey Mouse and deep disdain for boiled cabbage have in common? Correct, they’re all long-term memories. 10 points to you. But did you know that anything we recall from more than thirty seconds ago is a long-term memory and that this mish-mash of previous information varies not just in terms of content, but storage and recall too? No? Well today’s your lucky day. 

 

Episodic and semantic memory

As the name suggests, episodic memory derives from personal experiences at specific points in time. From going to Disneyland to going vegetarian, they are a string of serialised memories that allow us to recall notable moments from our lives, as well as the context, surroundings and emotions of these moments. It’s why autobiographies don’t just say ‘I met Mickey Mouse’, but ‘I shook Mickey Mouse’s giant hand hoping he wouldn’t notice the Coca-Cola I’d spilled on my trousers”. 

However, if while at Disneyland you learned that Mickey Mouse was originally called Mortimer Mouse, that would be semantic memory. Generally relating to factual knowledge, semantic memory is your understanding of meanings and concepts outside of personal experience, such as 2+2, the taste of candy floss and the date of the first moon landing. 

 

Explicit and implicit memory 

When we consciously remember information, such as reciting the capital of Thailand in an exam, we’re conjuring explicit memories from our mind. They can be strengthened through repetition (think cramming for a test) and constitute ‘what we know we know’. 

But sometimes information pops into our heads without us actively thinking about it, like automatically shunning the cabbage in a buffet or humming a random song. This is the murky realm of implicit memory, which enables us to ride a bike after all those years and also subconsciously reminds us of overcooked school cabbage that our conscious has forgotten.  Triggered by a wide variety of contexts, implicit memory is also key for marketers as it enables humans to make unconscious associations that guide future behaviour. 

 

Memories in the heart

Memories come in various forms and also from various parts of the body. The gut, for example, has a ‘belly brain’ that contains millions of neurons, controls our digestion and is known to anyone that has suffered irregular bowel movements. 

Meanwhile, the heart can think, feel and act on its own behalf (what do you think controls your heartbeat?) and can even retain memories when taken out of the body. From a change in sexual preferences to picking up fears and tastes, there have been numerous cases of heart transplant patients picking up the habits of their donors. In Claire Sylvia’s book A change of heart, she descibes how she developed a new craving for chicken nuggets and beer after having a transplant, while a young girl supposedly helped convict her donor’s murderer by having dreams of the actual murder. 

 

Not just animals who remember 

If you think that’s spooky, then you won’t want to hear the thoughts of ecologist Monica Gagliano, who concluded that plants can learn and remember behaviours despite having no brains or neurons after her Mimosa Pudica plants learnt to ignore irrelevant stimuli. 

Biochemist Dr Jacques Benveniste made an even more controversial claim. By dipping flowers in water and noting the tiny individual marks they left behind, he claimed that water could remember things previously diluted into it, thus defying our current understanding of chemistry. 

Both theories have yet to be proven, but one thing is clear: long-term memories are anything but homogenous. So, if you’re a marketer looking to make long-lasting positive memories, you need to understand the mechanics of memory (yep, that’s a not-so subtle hint about Rebel & Soul’s neuroexperiences right there).

 

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