How To Enhance Your Episodic Memory To Recall & Understand Past Events
Think back to your last vacation. There's a good chance specific events come to mind, such as boarding a plane with your friends or eating lunch with your partner. In either case, you probably remember how you felt, what you smelled, and what you heard—and it's all thanks to your episodic memory.
Episodic memory allows you to explicitly recall past experiences. It's also what makes it possible to remember (and understand) the events that have shaped your life.
However, episodic memory often changes over time, so it's important to try to support it. Here's what you need to know about episodic memory and what you can do to improve it.
What is episodic memory?
In psychology, the definition of episodic memory is the ability to remember specific events (or episodes) in your life. Episodic memories themselves are innately autobiographical, as everyone experiences the same events in different ways.
After all, when you unpack an episodic memory, it can often be expressed as, "I did this, in that place, at this time." It encompasses an event that occurred in your life, from your own unique perspective.
Integrative neurologist Romie Mushtaq, M.D., explains further: "Episodic memory is your unique ability to remember your emotions and experiences around a specific event or situation in your life. [It] helps construct your sense of self, [as] it is unique and personal to you."
Episodic memory, like all types of memory, relies on the hippocampus. However, there's a 1wide variety of brain regions involved, including the cerebellum2; diencephalon; and temporal, parietal, and frontal cortices, according to Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.
Episodic memory vs. semantic memory.
While episodic memory involves recalling detailed personal events, semantic memory3 is the ability to remember general knowledge. It involves information that isn't associated with a certain time or place—like facts, names, and dates. Semantic memories are so disconnected from a specific moment in time or location that it can be difficult to pinpoint where you obtained each piece of info in the first place.
Consider this: An example of an episodic memory is remembering where you parked your car. You might also recall how you were feeling and what was happening around you (like the SUV that took the spot you wanted or the song that was playing when you pulled into the parking lot). On the flip side, semantic memory helps you remember and understand what a car is and how to go about parking it.
Together, episodic and semantic memory make up what's called declarative memory, aka explicit memory. This refers to the ability to consciously retrieve memories about previous events and facts. For most people, declarative memory is what comes to mind when they think of memory in general.
Types of episodic memory.
Episodic memory can be categorized into four types:
- General events: This is the ability to recall what it's like to generally experience certain events. One example is remembering what it feels like for your body to be immersed in the ocean, which stems from a collection of multiple memories, says Mushtaq.
- Specific events: A specific event involves a particular moment in your life. Working off the ocean example, Mushtaq explains that a specific event might be the first time you remember putting your feet and body into the ocean.
- Flashbulb memory: "A flashbulb memory is what we usually describe as having a 'flashback,'" says Uma Naidoo, M.D., nutritional psychiatrist and author of This Is Your Brain on Food. According to the American Psychological Association, it's a more specific, detailed form of episodic memory, as it often involves events that are highly significant and emotional. For instance, you'll likely remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the death of a loved one.
- Personal facts: This includes information associated with your life. It also involves what that info means to you on a personal level, according to Carmichael. Examples of personal facts include the color of your first car or your high school mascot.
Examples of episodic memory.
To better understand episodic memory and what it entails, check out these examples:
- Your first kiss
- The name of your first boss
- Your first day at your current job
- Adopting each of your pets
- Where you were during a major event, such as 9/11
- How you were feeling during a significant event, like your graduation
- Meeting your partner for the first time
- Making breakfast this morning
- Eating lunch with a friend last week
Again, episodic memory is highly personal and unique. This holds true even if multiple people experience the same events. For instance, after that lunch date with your friend, each of you will recall different things because we are all different people.
How to improve episodic memory.
Compared to other forms of memory, episodic memory is more likely to change as we get older. That said, it's worth exploring how to support episodic memory, no matter your age.
For the most part, it involves the same strategies used to improve memory in general. However, certain habits are especially helpful for episodic memory, as they target the uniqueness of individual events.
Take a brain-health supplement.
If you want to leverage brain health via nootropics, consider adding a targeted memory supplement to your routine.* Consider a brain-health supplement that features citicoline, a neuronutrient that's present in every cell of your body. Citicoline is critical for brain health, as it supports the communication between neurons, or nerve cells.*
Case in point: In a 2021 clinical trial4, 500 milligrams of citicoline (as Cognizin®) increased episodic memory as well as overall memory in healthy older adults.* This clinically backed dose of 500 milligrams is intentionally included in mbg's scientifically advanced nootropic formula, brain guard+, along with additional potent neuroprotective bioactives, South African botanical extract kanna and powerhouse polyphenol resveratrol.
One of the best ways to nurture your noggin is to get enough Zzz's. As Mushtaq explains, consolidation and storage5 of a memory—including episodic memories—happens during sleep. However, "all types of memory are affected by lack of sleep. [In fact,] retrieval of any type of short-term memory will be impacted if you lose sleep for one to two nights," explains Mushtaq.
To optimize and support your memory (episodic or otherwise), getting enough deep, restful shut-eye is key.
Focus on physical activity.
From heart health to mood support, there are plenty of reasons to stay active—including healthy brain function and episodic memory. In fact, according to a compelling 6Acta Psychologica6 study6, a single session of strength training can positively affect episodic memory.
Another recent scientific review7 found that aerobic exercise can improve episodic memory in healthy older adults. What's more, regular exercise can help you get better sleep, which is also essential for supporting episodic memory.
Eat a healthy diet.
Much like the rest of the body, the brain is inextricably linked to the foods we eat, says Naidoo. Brain-supporting nutrients help support myriad functions, including mood, cognition, and memory. Naidoo expounds further: "A diet rich in healthy fats and powerful antioxidants help the brain remain healthier and tamp down pro-inflammatory pathways," which is key for protecting the brain over time.
Examples of memory-healthy foods include omega-3-rich fish, antioxidant-packed berries, turmeric (with a pinch of black pepper for optimal absorption), Brazil nuts8, and leafy greens, says Naidoo.
Write in a journal.
Journaling is an excellent tool for supporting episodic memory because it requires you to reflect on specific events. Naidoo explains that when writing in a journal, you'll have to recall things like specific facts and what you felt during the event.
Carmichael echoes this strategy, noting that recapping your day each evening will help you better remember experiences later on. If journaling isn't your thing, no worries—you can still reap the benefits of this practice by simply mentally walking through your day.
Challenge your brain.
According to Naidoo, challenging your brain via puzzles and games can support healthy memory and cognition, especially as you age. Such activities exercise the brain's ability to coordinate communication across its various parts, which reinforces pathways of memory and makes brain-cell-to-cell communication faster, she explains.
Even playing video games has been found to improve episodic memory in older adults, according to a 2016 study9 published by Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Impact of episodic memory.
Maintaining healthy episodic memory isn't just about remembering your first kiss or the beater car you drove in college. It's about using your brain in a way that supports overall cognitive function and brain longevity.
As mentioned, episodic memory taps into many different brain regions, thereby increasing activity between them. It also requires "a certain amount of emotional control because you have to go through everything that happened without [focusing too much] on any one particular detail," notes Carmichael. This puts your executive functioning skills to work, as it involves attention control, she says.
From the perspective of mental and emotional wellness, episodic memory is essential for creating the richness of your past experiences, shares Mushtaq. She goes on to add that "episodic memory is personally important to each individual because no two humans experience one event the same way." Episodic memory, after all, is what will help you personalize a certain event—from the sounds you heard to the emotions you felt.
Finally, episodic memory is key for maintaining independence throughout life. The ability to remember specific occurrences—again, like where you parked your car or what you made for breakfast—is crucial for overall longevity and well-being.
Episodic memory allows you to remember specific events. It helps you recall the emotions, sensations, and experiences associated with each event, particularly when it's highly significant or meaningful.
To improve episodic memory, aim to nurture memory in general. This includes strategies like getting enough sleep, staying active, eating a healthy diet, and challenging your brain. Some daily practices, like journaling and taking a premium nootropic supplement, can target episodic memory specifically.*
For an advanced nootropic formula designed to support multidimensional aspects of memory (including episodic memory), consider mbg's brain guard+ (or check out the high-quality supplements featured in our roundup of best memory supplements) so you can have your experiences and recall them too.*
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta. Kirsten specializes in nutrition, fitness, food, and DIY; her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including eHow, SparkPeople, and international editions of Cosmopolitan. She also creates recipes for food product packaging.