What Is Procedural Memory?

Riding a bike is an example of a procedural memory
Ryoko Uyama/ Photodisc/ Getty Images

Procedural memory is a type of long-term memory involving how to perform different actions and skills. Essentially, it is the memory of how to do certain things. Riding a bike, tying your shoes, and cooking an omelet are all examples of procedural memories.

A Closer Look at Procedural Memory

Procedural memories start to form very early in life as you begin to learn how to walk, talk, eat, and play. These memories become so ingrained that they are almost automatic.

You do not need to consciously think about how to perform these motor skills; you simply do them without much, if any, thought.

While it is easy to demonstrate these actions, explaining how and where you learned them can be much more difficult. In many cases, you learn these skills during early childhood. Learning how to walk is one great example. Once this action is learned, you do not need to consciously remind yourself of how the process works. Your procedural memory takes over and allows you to perform the skill without thinking about it. For activities like learning how to drive or to ride a bike, you simply practice them so often that they become ingrained.

Examples of Procedural Memory

Some other examples of procedural memory include:

  • Writing with a pen
  • Typing on a keyboard
  • Playing basketball
  • Playing piano
  • Swimming
  • Walking

How Procedural Memories Are Formed

Procedural memories form when connections are made between synapses, gaps at the end of a neuron that allow signals to pass.

The more frequently an action is performed, the more often signals are sent through those same synapses. Over time, these synaptic routes become stronger and the actions themselves become unconscious and automatic.

A number of brain structures are associated with the formation and maintenance of procedural memories.

The cerebellum, for example, is associated with coordinating movements and fine motor skills required for many activities such as drawing, painting, playing a musical instrument, writing, and sculpting. The limbic system, another area of the brain, is also known for coordinating many processes involved in memory and learning.

The Difference Between Procedural Memory and Declarative Memory

Procedural memory is considered a type of implicit memory. Implicit memories are those that form without effort. When the lyrics to a popular song get stuck in your head, that's an example of implicit memory at work. You haven’t expended any effort to learn the lyrics and melody of the song. Simply hearing it in the background as you go about your day leads to the formation of an implicit memory.

Declarative memories, on the other hand, are things that you intentionally remember and that require conscious effort to bring into memory. Also known as explicit memory, this type of memory involves things such as remembering information for a test, that you have a dentist appointment, and your home address.

Procedural memories are often difficult to explain. If someone asked you how you drive a car or ride a bike, you might struggle to put it into words.

If they asked you how to drive to your house, however, you would probably be able to articulate the route fairly easily. Remembering the physical process of how to do something (like drive a car) is a procedural memory, while remembering the route you have to take to get somewhere is a declarative memory.

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