Procedural Memory

Understanding Procedural Memory

We perform an immense variety of learned actions such as writing words with a pencil, riding a bicycle, typing a keyboard, and playing the piano. When we first learn these actions, we focus our attention entirely on carrying them out, but after they are repeated, the actions become nearly automatic that we need not put in conscious effort while performing them. These relatively automatic actions have been termed procedural memory.

Procedural memory refers to the ability to perform learned actions or skills. Simply put, procedural memory is “knowing how” to do something; it includes habits and skills that accumulate slowly through practice and repetition.

For example, the automated and reflexive actions involved in riding a bicycle without conscious effort depend on procedural memory.

As the name implies, procedural memory is memory for procedures. The memory expert Gilbert Ryle (1949) called such “knowledge” knowing how.

You know how to cut your food with knife and fork, how to walk, how to read and write, how to do long division, how to peel a banana, how to ride a bicycle. And you can do these procedures without conscious effort.

Although conscious processes are involved in the early stages of most procedural learning, and the training can generally be recalled, procedural learning can happen without the ability to recall the training.

Even when individuals can consciously access the steps involved in a learned procedure or skill, conscious retrieval is not necessary for performance of the skill. Hence, it is considered a type of implicit memory Opens in new window.

Other indications that procedural learning is part of the implicit memory system are that procedural knowledge is not dependent on explicit memory Opens in new window and that procedural memory is still retained when explicit memory becomes inaccessible, such as in cases of amnesia Opens in new window or dementia Opens in new window.

Procedural learning includes cognitive, perceptual, motor, and other types of learning. For example, it involves learning to blend phonemes into smoothly pronounced words or learning to dribble and shoot a basketball.

Procedural memory accrues through experience and is evidenced by changes in behavior. Conscious awareness of procedural memory is not necessary for accurate performance of a skill. For instance, the automated and reflexive actions involved in driving an automobile depend on procedural memory.

Procedural memory accumulates slowly through practice and repetition; and once it is established, it usually lasts a lifetime. For example, people never forget how to ride a bicycle, and even individuals with advanced Alzheimer’s Opens in new window retain their procedural knowledge.

Functional imaging studies have revealed that the supplementary motor area, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, all core areas in procedural memory, become active as a new task is being learned (Ullman 2004).

Because the cortical and limbic areas of the brain are affected in early stages of Alzheimer disease but not the basal ganglia and cerebellum, patients manifest impairment of episodic memory Opens in new window but have intact procedural memory performance.

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