Difference between Episodic and Semantic Memory

Both semantic and episodic memories are stored in long-term memory. There are two categories of long-term memory: declarative and non-declarative. Non-declarative memory involves actions which are learned or performed below the conscious level. An example is driving or tying shoelaces. The other category is declarative memory, which is further divided into episodic and semantic memory. This article focuses on what episodic and semantic memories are, and the differences between them.


Episodic vs Semantic memory
Episodic memories result from the important things that happened in people’s lives. Events such as weddings, graduation from college, embarrassing moments, breakups, and many more do not get forgotten. Instead, they are stored in a person’s episodic memory.

Semantic memories are the things that people have perfected as a result of learning. This includes concepts, vocabulary, numerical processes, facts, work and academic skills. Before becoming semantic memory, this type of thing must have passed through the person’s short-term memory. It is then processed by deep interaction or understanding of that information or skill before it is stored as long-term memory.

Comparison Chart

Episodic memory Semantic memory
Involves remembering Involves knowing
Recent in evolution Evolved earlier
Develops after semantic memory Develops first before episodic memory
Oriented to the past Oriented to the present

Episodic vs Semantic memory

What is the difference between episodic and semantic memory? The difference between these two categories of long-term memory is in their evolution, which one develops first, time orientation, and how an individual experiences them.

Episodic memory involves remembering past events, whereas semantic memory involves knowing things. A person using episodic memory remembers particular past events, and experiences a part of those things as he/she remembers them, i.e. he/she relives the events. Semantic memory is concerned with knowledge. The individual thinks about the event rather than remembering it.

Semantic memory is older than episodic memory in evolution. This is based on comparison of human beings with other mammals and birds who only have semantic memory but do not exhibit episodic memories like humans do. In addition, in human development, semantic memory comes first. Children quickly gather knowledge about all sorts of things but do not have the capability to remember past events like adults do.

Of all memories, only episodic memory is related to the past. Its retrieval involves a person thinking back to an earlier time in the past. Semantic memory does not require remembering. A person’s thinking in semantic memory is in the present – whatever that person was doing at that moment.


For more information, watch this long video that talks about semantic and episodic memory: