Do you ever wonder how you can just pick up a pen and write without really thinking about the act of writing? Or how do you instinctively know how to turn the wheel of your vehicle? That’s procedural memory in action. Let’s take a look at what procedural memory is and why it’s so important.
Memory is divided into two classes—procedural and declarative.
Procedural memory is linked with learning and remembering how to perform tasks.
Playing the piano, writing, dancing and driving are all examples of procedural memory.
Procedural memory does not significantly decline with age.
People suffering with amnesia often retain their procedural memory, but lack the ability to recall how or where they learned to do something.
What is procedural memory?
Procedural memory is one type of long-term memory, and is associated with the learning and performance of various tasks. If regular memory can be described as having the ability to recall things, procedural memory is more to do with the ‘how to’ of executing certain tasks.
When you are using procedural memory, you may not even be consciously aware of it, unlike with recalling facts or images—where you have to actively think to bring back the memory.
Why is procedural memory important?
Procedural memory is an incredibly vital part of everyday life and functioning. Some people call it muscle memory. It enables you to perform tasks without having to use much conscious thought. Imagine if you had to deeply consider every part of tying your shoelaces every time you did them up. It would be exhausting, and a waste of brain power.
Examples of procedural memory
- Driving. If you had to consciously consider every turn—from flicking on the blinker, to a gear shift and turning the wheel at the right angle—you’d be distracted and unable to focus on any potential hazards.
- Writing. This is a fine example of procedural memory. You only have to think about what you want to write, not how to form every letter on the page.
- Cooking a simple meal. You know that feeling when you’ve made dinner, and seasoned it perfectly, but couldn’t really describe the process? That procedural memory at work.
- Playing instruments. The more we practice something, like playing the guitar or piano for example, the stronger the memory gets until it becomes encoded.
- Typing. Once we’ve typed on a keyboard for some time, we start to instinctively know where to put our fingers without looking down at the keys.
How do we develop procedural memory?
We learn and develop procedural memory by doing. The more we repeat a task, the better we remember how to do it. And eventually, when we can cook that meal or dance that choreography without much thought, we’ve moved that action or task into our procedural memory bank.
Does procedural memory decline with age?
With so much literature about the decline of function as we age, it’s natural to wonder if our procedural memory will be affected. Thankfully, according to research, it seems that our ingrained memory for tasks remains mostly unaffected by the passage of time.
In fact, it has been noted that those with dementia or Alzheimer’s can often still play guitar and piano as well as they did in their younger years.
Why is procedural memory unaffected by amnesia?
Scientists divide memory into two classes—procedural and declarative. The motor skills and cognition involved in procedural memory become ingrained after physical practice. We can describe these actions as being unconscious and implicit.
Declarative memories are more surface based, and you need conscious and explicit access to them. Take a look at the table below, which shows examples of procedural and declarative activities.
Procedural memory (implicit)
- Riding a bike
- Instrumental skills
Declarative memory (explicit)
- Remembering math equations
- Recalling a day at the park
- Describing a person you met
Studies show that amnesiacs tend to remember habits rather than facts. For example, in the famous case of Clive Wearing, he was able to remember how to play the piano, but with no memory of his musical education.
There is no certainty about why amnesiacs tend to maintain procedural memory. Some say it’s because this type of memory is stored in a different part of the brain. Others note that procedural memory is often kinesthetic—heavily connected to movement—and that it could really be the muscles that instinctively remember.
Where is procedural memory located in the brain?
Procedural and declarative memory are stored in different interconnected areas of the brain. Our implicit procedural memory relies on the basal ganglia and cerebellum, which are located at the rear base of the brain.
The explicit or declarative memories rely on the hippocampus, amygdala, and neocortex areas of the brain to function properly.
How can we improve our procedural memory?
You might have heard your piano or language teachers saying, “Practice practice practice!” And they’re right. The only way to embed a task, so it becomes muscle memory, is to do it over and over again.
Space your learning
It’s been shown that spacing out your learning is better than doing it constantly. For example, you might practice guitar for an hour a day, but try breaking it up into four fifteen minute chunks throughout your day and notice if you have better recall.
If you are learning to touch type, for example, try setting yourself small tasks of writing a few words, then a sentence and eventually moving on to paragraphs. When you spend time consciously pushing your learning, you’ll get to that ingrained sense of knowing how to do something in no time.
- Neurobiology of Aging. Is procedural memory relatively spared from age effects?
- Queensland Brain Institute. Where are memories stored in the brain?
- Science ABC. Why don’t patients of memory loss forget their language?
- Brain. The scope of preserved procedural memory in amnesia.