Explicit Memory

Family History

Explicit memory, also referred to as declarative memory, is conscious long-term memory that is easily and intentionally recalled and recited. It stands in contrast to implicit memory, which is an indirect, unconscious form of memory. Information from explicit memory is usually retrieved in response to a specific prompt such as, “How was your day?” or, “What is the scientific method?”

Examples of Explicit Memory

There are two types of explicit memory:

  1. Episodic memory is the recall of life events and autobiographical knowledge. It includes information like your name, age, date of birth, childhood memories, and family relationships.
  2. Semantic memory is all non-biographical explicit memory. It is the conscious memory of facts, formulas, and problem-solving strategies. For example, knowing that Boise is the capital of Idaho would be a semantic memory.

Most types of information colloquially referred to as memories are examples of explicit memory.

How are Explicit Memories Stored?

Explicit memories are formed via a process of encoding and retrieval. In the encoding phase, people “record” the information in their brain. Memories are “formed” in the hippocampus, located in the brain’s temporal lobe. The hippocampus creates links between neurons, tying all the various information in the memory together (the music, the smells, the colors, etc.).

Explicit memories can be coded deliberately through flashcards, verbal repetition, revisiting photographs, and so on. When a person rehearses a memory, they are actually passing it through the hippocampus multiple times. Rehearsed memories are often easier to retrieve later.

Episodic memories can be coded unconsciously if they prompt strong emotions. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for connecting memories to certain emotions. Events which prompt fear, such as getting stung by bees, are especially likely to become episodic memories. Remembering danger helps us avoid it in the future.

Once a memory is significantly strong enough, it is stored long-term in the brain. Long-term memories are stored all throughout the brain’s cortex. Where a specific memory is stored depends on what kind of memory it is, which senses were involved, and so on.

How are Explicit Memories Retrieved?

Retrieval is the process by which a person accesses the memory. It is usually sparked when some association is made with the memory. For example, a teacher could ask a student to recite the first three digits of pi, which could then prompt the student to remember their flashcards. The memory may also come up if a person encounters a stimulus similar to the ones present in the memory. For instance, the smell of cake could remind someone of their last birthday party.

Memories are easier to retrieve if they:

  • Involved a strong emotion.
  • Involved multiple senses, such as hearing or smell. (More senses means more chances to be reminded of the event or fact.)
  • Were rehearsed or revisited frequently.

Current research does not pose a hard limit for the number of semantic or episodic memories one person can have. Memories may be overwritten with new information, or they may become difficult to retrieve. However, they generally don’t “disappear”.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA Concise Dictionary of Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. The brain from top to bottom. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_07/d_07_cr/d_07_cr_tra/d_07_cr_tra.html
  3. Burnett, D. (2015, September 16). What happens in your brain when you make a memory? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/sep/16/what-happens-in-your-brain-when-you-make-a-memory
  4. Episodic Memory. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://eecs.vanderbilt.edu/cis/crl/episodicmemory.shtml
  5. Episodic memory. (n.d.). Scholarpedia. Retrieved from http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Episodic_memory
  6. Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., & Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  7. Siegel, D. J. (1999). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  8. Where are memories stored in the brain? (n.d.). Queensland Brain Institute. Retrieved from https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain-basics/memory/where-are-memories-stored

Last Updated: 04-30-2019

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