In This Article Semantic Memory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Classic Modular Taxonomy
  • Semantic Memory Tasks and Data Sources
  • Semantic Priming
  • Semantic Development
  • Embodied Semantics

Psychology Semantic Memory
Michael N. Jones, Johnathan Avery
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0231


Semantic memory refers to our general world knowledge that encompasses memory for concepts, facts, and the meanings of words and other symbolic units that constitute formal communication systems such as language or math. In the classic hierarchical view of memory, declarative memory was subdivided into two independent modules: episodic memory, which is our autobiographical store of individual events, and semantic memory, which is our general store of abstracted knowledge. However, more recent theoretical accounts have greatly reduced the independence of these two memory systems, and episodic memory is typically viewed as a gateway to semantic memory accessed through the process of abstraction. Modern accounts view semantic memory as deeply rooted in sensorimotor experience, abstracted across many episodic memories to highlight the stable characteristics and mute the idiosyncratic ones. A great deal of research in neuroscience has focused on both how the brain creates semantic memories and what brain regions share the responsibility for storage and retrieval of semantic knowledge. These include many classic experiments that studied the behavior of individuals with brain damage and various types of semantic disorders but also more modern studies that employ neuroimaging techniques to study how the brain creates and stores semantic memories. Classically, semantic memory had been treated as a miscellaneous area of study for anything in declarative memory that was not clearly within the realm of episodic memory, and formal models of meaning in memory did not advance at the pace of models of episodic memory. However, recent developments in neural networks and corpus-based tools for modeling text have greatly increased the sophistication of models of semantic memory. There now exist several good computational accounts to explain how humans transform first-order experience with the world into deep semantic representations and how these representations are retrieved and used in meaning-based behavioral tasks. The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with the more salient publications, reviews, and themes of major advances in the various subfields of semantic memory over the past forty-five years. For more in-depth coverage, we refer the reader to the manuscripts in the General Overviews section.

General Overviews

While semantic memory has been the subject of a considerable amount of research, the topic has not garnered enough attention to warrant any full volumes being written on the topic. Nevertheless, there are numerous overviews of semantic memory that exist as part of more general volumes. Chang 1986 provides an early account of the field of semantic memory. Binder and Desai 2011, Thompson-Schill 2003, and Yee, et al. 2013 provide overviews of neurologically based accounts of semantic memory. Finally, Balota and Coane 2008, McRae and Jones 2013, and Yee, et al. 2017 provide an in-depth overview of the study of semantic memory and incorporate the history of the field, experimental evidence, and computational models of semantic memory.

  • Balota, D. A., and J. H. Coane. 2008. Semantic memory. In Handbook of learning and memory: A comprehensive reference. Edited by J. H. Byrne, H. Eichenbaum, R. Menzel, H. L. Roediger III, and D. Sweatt, 512–531. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    E-mail Citation »

    Summarizes findings from various approaches to the study of semantic memory.

  • Binder, J. R., and R. H. Desai. 2011. The neurobiology of semantic memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15.11: 527–536.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.10.001E-mail Citation »

    Provides a summary of the role of varied brain regions implicated in semantic processing.

  • Chang, T. M. 1986. Semantic memory: Facts and models. Psychological Bulletin 99.2: 199.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.99.2.199E-mail Citation »

    Reconsiders the extent and richness of semantic memory, reestablishing early findings in the field.

  • McRae, K., and M. N. Jones. 2013. Semantic memory. In The Oxford handbook of cognitive psychology. Edited by D. Reisberg, 206–216. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Summarizes the literature in experimental studies and computational models of semantic memory.

  • Thompson-Schill, S. L. 2003. Neuroimaging studies of semantic memory: Inferring ‘how’ from ‘where.’ Neuropsychologia 4.3: 280–292.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0028-3932(02)00161-6E-mail Citation »

    Reviews the locations of activations for semantic representations, discussing functional neuroimaging studies in semantic memory.

  • Yee, E., E. G. Chrysikou, and S. L. Thompson-Schill. 2013. Semantic memory. In The Oxford handbook of cognitive neuroscience: Core topics. Vol. 1. Edited by Kevin Ochsner and Stephen Kosslyn, 353–374. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This article reviews literature that supports the grounding of semantic models in sensorimotor inputs.

  • Yee, E., M. N. Jones, and K. McRae. 2017. Semantic memory. In The Stevens’ handbook of experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience. 4th ed. Edited by J. Wixted and S. Thompson-Schill, 319–356. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides a comprehensive review of semantic memory, summarizing computational modeling and experimental data.

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