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Procedural Memory

Procedural memory is a form of long-term memory that enables people to learn and execute tasks. It has been described as a kind of implicit memory: Unlike when a person recalls facts or images, someone using procedural memory may not be consciously aware that it's being accessed.

How We Use Procedural Memory

While memory often involves “knowing that”—that you went to Spain on vacation, or that Sunday is the first day of the week—procedural memory has been described as “knowing how.” It is the ingrained sense of how to complete a pattern of behavior, even without being able to fully explain the way it’s done. The development of skills and habits involves the use of procedural memory.

What are some examples of procedural memory?

“Kinesthetic memory” or “muscle memory” for the automatic movements involved in throwing a ball, dancing, swimming, steering a vehicle, typing, or signing one’s name is procedural memory. Procedural memory can also be involved in non-motor procedures that involve habitual responses, as when one plays a familiar game.

Why is procedural memory important?

Procedural memory is key to a wide variety of everyday abilities and experiences. It’s thought to facilitate even relatively basic behaviors like walking, not to mention the sequences involved in sports and games, work, transportation, and other activities, such as playing a musical instrument.

How Procedural Memory Works

From very early in life, we are using procedural memory to learn and remember how to accomplish tasks, from relatively simple and widespread ones to those that are honed with years of intensive practice. As a person gets dressed, leaves home, travels to work or play, and uses any number of skills that have become second-nature, procedural memory helps provide the know-how to do it all without having to figure out each step anew.

What parts of the brain are involved in procedural memory?

The group of subcortical structures called the basal ganglia, including components such as the striatum, are thought to be important for procedural learning, though other areas are likely involved. As skills are developed, changes in the brain’s cortex can be observed—for example, change in the motor cortex has been linked to the learning of motor skills. Experts suggest the specific brain system involved in procedural memory depends on the specific type of procedural learning.

What is the role of practice in procedural memory?

While an episodic memory (of going to an exciting party, for example) may be firmly planted shortly after the experience, procedural memory is generally associated with repetition of a procedure—practice, in the case of deliberate repetition—which strengthens the memory and helps build skills.