I recently had some questions concerning the capacity of the brain's memory:

  • Are different types of long term-memories like know-how, your-life, etc. remembered in different parts of the brain?
  • If so, how large are these different kinds of partitions of the brain?

See also: Savants and Volume.


2 Answers 2


As far as your first question is concerned:
It seems that you're interested in the distinction between declarative and nondeclarative forms of memory. These different forms of memory have also been termed knowing that and knowing how (Cohen & Squire, 1980)

  • Nondeclarative memory, according to Squire (2004), is an umbrella term refering to Procedural Memory, Priming, Classical Conditioning and nonassociative forms of learning. It seems that this type of knowledge is located over different areas in the brain, including Neocortex, Amygdala, Cerebellum and Neostriatum.

  • Declarative memory is divided into semantic and episodic memory, which might be what you mean by your-life. In the brain, this form of memory is associated with the Hippocampus, whose major areas are the Dentate Gyrus and the CA3 and CA1 regions.

Cohen, N. J. and Squire, L. R. (1980). Preserved learning and retention of pattern-analyzing skill in amnesia: Dissociation of knowing how and knowing that. Science, 210, 207–210.

Squire, L. R. (2004). Memory systems of the brain: a brief history and current perspective. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 82, 171–177.


Just to add to Jens answer, opinion is still divided regarding whether memory is subserved by distinct systems, or is a distributed, emergent property of perceptual, navigational and semantic systems. Whereas patient data has always strongly implicated distinct memory systems (e.g., declarative vs non-declarative), multivariate fMRI studies have provided good support for reinstatement theories, where successful retrieval of memories involves reinstatement of perceptual states. Moreover, there is growing evidence that regions that are thought to be amodal memory structures (e.g., hippocampus, perirhinal cortex), are involved in perceptual discrimination judgements and show preferences for different categories of visual input. For example, damage to the hippocampus can impair scene discrimination judgements whereas damage to the perirhinal cortex can impair face and object discrimination judgements. So it could be the case that there really aren't any dedicated memory structures per se, but memory is the co-ordinated reactivation of mechanisms involved in perception and action (probably via top down signals from frontal lobes).

The references provided by Jens provide good coverage of the distinct systems view of memory so I'll just provide some references for the distributed and reinstatement views.


Murray, E. A., Bussey, T. J., & Saksida, L. M. (2007). Visual perception and memory: A new view of medial temporal lobe function in primates and rodents. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 30, 99-122.

Graham, K.S., Barense, M.D. & Lee, A.C.H. (2010). Going beyond LTM in the MTL: a synthesis of neuropsychological and neuroimaging findings on the role of the medial temporal lobe in memory and perception. Neuropsychologia, 48, 831-853.

Polyn S.M., Natu V.S., Cohen J.D., & Norman K.A. (2005) Category-specific cortical activity precedes recall during memory search. Science, 310, 1963-1966.

Johnson, J. D., McDuff, S. G. R., Rugg, M. D., & Norman, K. A. (2009). Recollection, familiarity, and cortical reinstatement: A multivoxel pattern analysis. Neuron, 63, 697-708

Xue G, Dong Q, Chen C, Lu ZL, Mumford JA, Poldrack R (2010). Greater Neural Pattern Similarity Across Repetitions is Associated with Better Memory. Science, 330, 97-101.


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