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When it comes to memory, there are two types of people: those who can recall the sights, sounds and scents of life events in glorious evocative detail; and those who can conjure up only the plain, unadorned facts.
For example, if two people go to a fancy restaurant, one might remember the aromas coming from the kitchen, the crustiness of the bread, the peppery bouquet of the wine, while the other would recall the date and time of the meal, the name of the person who shared it and the address of the eatery.
Scientists have come up with names for these two styles of memory: If it’s richly detailed, they’ve dubbed it “episodic;” if it’s just the facts, then it’s called “semantic.”
Intriguingly, researchers have discovered that our brain wiring reflects the style of memory we are most prone to. In fact, differences in brain connections can be seen on MRI scans even when we’re not officially trying to recall anything, according to a report published in the journal Cortex.
“You can think of episodic memory as a personality trait,” says lead author Signy Sheldon, a researcher the Rotman Research Institute when the study was performed and now an assistant professor in the department of psychology at McGill University. “People high in this style have a tendency to do mental time travel. They can go back to past events and re-experience them in detail.”
It’s not just the past that is affected by memory style, Sheldon says. People use the same mental time travel to imagine what future events might be like. “And this has implications for how people plan for the future and solve upcoming problems,” she adds.
Sheldon doesn’t know whether people are born with the specific brain wiring that controls which style of memory they’ll be using later in life. Since the brain is “plastic,” it could be that over a lifetime people just get in the habit of either remembering events in rich detail or simply the most salient facts.
In future research, she’d like to see if there are factors that predispose a person to one type of memory style or the other: other personality traits, or career choices — artistic versus scientific, for example.
She also wonders whether differing memory styles could impact relationships.
“I’d like to look at romantic partnerships where one person is an episodic rememberer and the other is more of a semantic rememberer,” she says. “How do these different styles of memory affect how those people will interact with one another?”
There are plenty of scenarios that could be sparked by those differences.
You might be tempted, for example, to assume that if your honey doesn’t remember the day you met in as intricate detail as you do, it means he doesn’t care as much. That would be a mistake, says Marc Coutanche, an assistant professor of psychology and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
“We accept differences in other domains,” Coutanche says. “For example, one member of the couple might be much better at navigating. We don’t tend to think of memory that way, but I think we should accept that there can be differences and not take things personally.”
While it might be tempting to think episodic memory is superior because of the extensive detail people can remember, people with memory that tends to be more semantic can have very sharp recall when it comes to things like sports statistics, Coutanche says.
It’s also important to keep in mind that style of memory may change throughout life.
Depression can turn people who are prone to episodic memory into semantic “rememberers,” says Coutanche. Similarly, people tend to drift more towards the semantic style of remembering as they age, he says.