Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Episodic and Semantic Memory

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If I ask you to tell me what 3+2 equals, you would probably do so instantly. On the other hand, if I ask you to name in the last movie you saw the theater, you might have to think about it for a second or two. Those two different types of recall illustrate the differences between semantic memory and episodic memory.

I’ll start with episodic memory first. As the name implies, episodic memory is a form of long-term memory that records events from your life. Such episodes might include your wedding, the birth of a child, or something as mundane as getting out of a cab and stepping directly into a puddle. These episodes make up your internal autobiography, which is your personal record of your experiences.

Semantic memory, by contrast, refers to a subconscious knowledge that forms the basis for how we speak our native language, perform tasks we’ve done thousands of times, or interact in social settings. Semantic knowledge is often tacit, meaning that it is hard to quantify or describe. In many cases there is no need to write down the rules of behavior because everyone in the situation knows precisely what they are supposed to do. You’ll find this is true of families around the dinner table or groups of friends who go out for drinks after work.

Episodes from your life provide terrific fodder for scenes if you’re an improviser or for presentations in business. The trick is to find episodes that are directly relevant to your audience’s needs and to resist the temptation to stray too much from the truth. It’s one thing to tell your significant other a slightly exaggerated version of your exploits, but it’s quite another to tell an obviously untrue story in a business presentation. Conference goers have seen lots of presentations and they can smell a fake a mile away. Play it straight—don’t give in to the temptation to exaggerate too much.

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