Body processes

Procedural memory – function, task and diseases

Procedural memory

Procedural memory , together with declarative memory , forms long-term memory . The information stored in procedural memory is not accessible to the conscious mind and is referred to as action information, so that procedural memory is sometimes also referred to as behavioral memory . Procedural memory is often damaged in people with degenerative diseases.

What is procedural memory?

Human long-term memory consists of two distinct parts. One is declarative memory. The content stored in it is facts about the world and one’s life that can be reproduced consciously. Procedural knowledge differs from declarative knowledge in that it eludes consciousness. For this reason, what was stored in the procedural memory cannot be reproduced consciously.

Nevertheless, the content of procedural memory is also knowledge content in the broadest sense. The procedural memory is also called behavioral memory and thus includes the implicit knowledge that a person has acquired about automated courses of action. In this context, for example, the movement sequences when dancing, running , cycling or driving a car are anchored in the procedural memory, even though the content cannot be verbalized.

Accordingly, all human skills are stored in this type of long-term memory. In this context, the term skills primarily refers to practically learned and complex movements, the sequence of which was practiced until it could be recalled without conscious thought.

function & task

While the declarative long-term memory contains theoretical information, only practical information is stored in the procedural part of the long-term memory. Implicit learning is often referred to in the context of procedural memory. ‘Learning in the situation’ is described as such. A person learns structures of a complex stimulus environment without necessarily intending to. The knowledge learned in the situation is sometimes difficult to verbalize and often finds its way into the memory as an unconscious learning process .

Procedural learning occurs primarily in the cerebellum , the subcortical motor centers, and the basal ganglia . This distinguishes the learning processes from declarative learning of all facts, which are stored with the participation of the entire neocortex.

The procedural knowledge is not conscious knowledge. Nonetheless, it is the most useful type of knowledge as it relates to unconscious routines of processing and action. Walking is a form of procedural knowledge that humans acquire from an early age. In this context, the type of learning corresponds to “learning by doing”. At a certain age or at a certain repetition rate of the walking movement, the toddler no longer has to concentrate on the movement and no longer have to give it thought.

An adult will not be able to tell what individual movements make up walking. He is hardly consciously aware of himself all the time, but instead automatically calls up the stored movement sequence from his procedural memory. As soon as you no longer have to consciously think about movement sequences, they are permanently stored.

Long-term memory contents are based on a special wiring pattern of individual synapses . These circuits are built on the basis of neuronal plasticity , but can also be broken down again if they are not called up often enough. While repetitive motor activities such as cycling are retained well even if the person concerned has not practiced them for a long time, synaptic connections for more complex movements are released again more easily. This applies, for example, to rehearsed choreographies for certain dance rhythms.

In addition to motor skills and behavior, procedural memory also includes cognitive skills and algorithms for automatic and unconscious use.

Diseases & Ailments

Memory disorders can be of various kinds. The most well-known memory disorders are different types of amnesia , such as those that occur after damage to declarative memory. This is to be distinguished from procedural memory disorders. In the case of severe declarative memory deficits, the functions and contents of procedural memory are retained in most cases, since declarative and procedural memory are located in different sections of the brain . For this reason, procedural memory disorders occur almost exclusively after damage to the basal ganglia, the cerebellum or the supplementary motor regions. 

The most common cause of this type of lesion is not trauma , as is relevant to declarative memory disorders , but degenerative diseases. Some of the most common disorders and impairments in procedural memory are observed in patients with Parkinson’s disease . Disorders such as Huntington ‘s disease can also be the cause of procedurally impaired memory performance.

Rarely, a procedural memory disorder with the loss of learned automatisms occurs after lesions in the basal ganglia, such as those caused by inflammatory processes, hypoxia , bleeding or trauma. In isolated cases, a disorder of procedural memory has also been linked to depression .

Procedural memory disorder is suspected most often in people who lose learned skills, such as the ability to write or play a particular musical instrument. Under certain circumstances, the impairment of procedural memory is reversible, for example if the person concerned relearns the old skills as part of rehabilitation and thus trains their procedural memory. In the case of degenerative diseases, however, the process can only be delayed through rehabilitation, but not brought to a standstill.

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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.