In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Memory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Varieties of Memory
  • Retrieval Processes
  • Encoding Processes
  • Encoding-Retrieval Interactions
  • Forgetting
  • Short-Term/Working Memory
  • Amnesia
  • Priming and Implicit Memory
  • Memory Illusions
  • Metamemory

Psychology Human Memory
Jeffrey D. Karpicke, Melissa Lehman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0107


“Memory,” broadly defined, is the ability to use the past in the service of the present. Memory can manifest itself in a variety of ways. When people tie their shoelaces or ride bicycles, they rely on past experiences to execute sequences of motor behaviors that accomplish those tasks. Such skills are often considered examples of procedural memory. When people identify objects in the environment (e.g., knowing that a thing is a plant or an animal) or when they give the answer to a factual question, they draw upon stores of general knowledge about the world accumulated over time. This type of memory is often referred to as semantic memory. When people remember events, they must attempt to recollect the details of what occurred at a particular place and time. This type of memory, called episodic memory, has been the focus of a wealth of research and will receive most of the attention in this article. Cognitive psychologists have devised numerous ways to study memory. Many methods involve giving a person various materials (often lists of words in laboratory experiments) during a study episode and then assessing that person’s ability to remember the materials on a memory test. Consider the difference between episodic and semantic memory in this context. If the word “tiger” occurs on a list in a study episode, and a person in the experiment fails to remember it on a memory test, he or she did not momentarily forget that a tiger is a large cat with stripes and big teeth. Instead, the person failed to remember that “tiger” occurred in a particular place and time (on a particular list in a particular memory experiment). The study of human learning and memory is vast, and the goal of the present article is to help orient new students of memory to the lay of the land in memory research. There is a great deal of research on memory that spans a wide variety of methods and disciplines, from the study of neural mechanisms of memory in invertebrate animals to the study of collective memories for historical events passed down across generations. Complete coverage of the entire world of memory studies would be impossible in a single article. This article is focused primarily on the study of human episodic memory within the field of cognitive psychology.

General Overviews

A wide range of books has been written on human learning and memory. These include popular press books aimed at general nonexpert readers (such as Schacter 1996 and Schacter 2001); textbooks intended for undergraduate and graduate students (Eichenbaum 2008, Neath and Surprenant 2003); and edited volumes that contain chapters on specific topics written by the best memory researchers in the world (Craik and Tulving 2000; Roediger 2008; Roediger, et al. 2007). The scope of human memory studies is vast, with studies ranging from immediate memory for briefly presented visual displays, to long-term memory for personal life events, to a culture’s collective memories for certain historical events (Boyer and Wertsch 2009) all falling within its purview. It is therefore fortunate that this array of excellent comprehensive overviews exists.

  • Boyer, P., and J. V. Wertsch, eds. 2009. Memory in mind and culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511626999

    This book contains chapters on various topics related to memory considered very broadly, including collective remembering of events by societies and the construction of history.

  • Craik, F. I. M., and E. Tulving, eds. 2000. The Oxford handbook of memory. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This handbook contains several chapters written by leading experts in the field of human learning and memory that are accessible to advanced students.

  • Eichenbaum, H. 2008. Learning and memory. New York: W. W. Norton.

    This textbook provides an introduction to research on human memory and animal learning from an interdisciplinary perspective.

  • Neath, I., and A. M. Surprenant. 2003. Human memory: An introduction to research, data, and theory. 2d ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    This textbook is aimed at advanced undergraduate students and provides a comprehensive foundation for the study of human memory, including an introduction to mathematical and computational models of human memory.

  • Roediger, H. L., ed. 2008. Learning and memory: A comprehensive reference. Vol. 2, Cognitive psychology of memory. Editor-in-chief: J. Byrne. Oxford: Elsevier.

    This volume is comprehensive, containing forty-eight chapters with extensive coverage of a wide range of topics, all within the broad category of memory studies.

  • Roediger, H. L., Y. Dudai, and S. M. Fitzpatrick, eds. 2007. Science of memory: Concepts. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195310443.001.0001

    This volume contains several brief chapters by memory experts on sixteen core concepts in the science of memory.

  • Schacter, D. L. 1996. Searching for memory: The brain, the mind, and the past. New York: Basic Books.

    A highly readable book about the science of memory, written for a general audience. Schacter covers memory research on normal memory function and memory disorders associated with brain injuries.

  • Schacter, D. L. 2001. The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Another excellent book aimed at a general audience. Schacter discusses ways that memory sometimes fails, organized around seven “sins,” and also explains why certain occasional failures are part of a normal, functional memory system.

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