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The domains of memory

  • Memory is not a "thing". You cannot simply "improve your memory", you can improve your memory skills in particular areas.
  • Different types of information are processed by different types (domains) of memory.
  • Different domains process information in different ways, and therefore require different strategies.
  • Understanding the various domains of memory will help you match memory strategies appropriately to different memory tasks.

"I'm terrible at remembering names"

"I'm great with names, but I'm hopeless at remembering what I've read."

"I always remember what people tell me about themselves, but I'm always forgetting birthdays and anniversaries."

There is no such thing as a poor memory!

There will be memory domains that you are less skilled at dealing with.

Information comes in different packages

Think about the different types of information you have stored in your memory:

  • the name of your dentist
  • your PIN number
  • the taste of chocolate
  • the sound of train whistle
  • the scent of a rose
  • the feeling of fear
  • the knowledge of how to drive a car
  • your intention to pick up bread on the way home

etc etc.

Is it likely that these so-different types of information are stored in the same sort of codes in your brain? That they are processed in the same way? That the same types of cues will trigger recall?


The concept of different memory domains is useful

The idea that there are separate memory systems for different types of information has been around a long while. While not all researchers agree on how many different domains there are, the idea of memory as a multimodal system has become respectable among cognitive psychologists. At a practical level, it isn't necessary for us to concern ourselves with the precise details of academic concerns regarding the nature of memory domains and how many there are. The idea of memory domains is a supremely useful one, for anyone wanting to improve their memory.

Different types of information require different memory strategies, and the idea of memory domains helps us match different strategies to different memory tasks. Knowing the principles by which we encode different types of information, we can understand which strategies will be useful.

Knowledge memory vs personal memory

One fundamental distinction that can be made is between your knowledge of "facts", and knowledge that is more personal.

Knowledge memory contains information about the world.

Personal memory contains information about you.

Within knowledge memory, separate domains may exist for numbers, for music, for language, and for stories. These are all types of information which appear to be dealt with in different ways.

diagram of domains

Personal memory also contains a number of different domains:


Common problem memory tasks, grouped by domain:

Knowledge memory:

  • remembering information you have studied.
  • remembering words

Identity memory:

  • trying to put a name to a face
  • trying to put a face to a name
  • trying to remember who someone is
  • wanting to remember someone’s personal details

Event memory:

  • remembering whether you’ve done something
  • remembering where you’ve put something
  • remembering when/where something happened
  • remembering important dates

Planning memory:

  • remembering to do something at a particular time
  • knowing there’s something you need to remember but you can’t think what it is

Skill memory:

  • trying to remember how to do something

Diagrams and table taken from The Memory Key

The Memory Key