Implicit vs Explicit Memory: How do we actually remember things?

Memory is a fascinating and intricate process that allows us to retain and recall information. But did you know that not all memories are created equal? Some are easy to access, and we recall them consciously. Others happen beneath our awareness, influencing our behaviour without us even noticing it.

If you’ve ever ridden a bike effortlessly after not touching one for a decade or felt the frustration of forgetting an important piece of information during an exam despite studying it extensively, you’ve experienced the intriguing duality of implicit and explicit memory.

So, here’s everything you need to know about the difference between implicit and explicit memory…

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What is implicit memory?

Implicit memory refers to when we recall information or skills we’ve acquired through past experiences. It operates outside of our conscious awareness and affects our behaviour and actions without us intentionally thinking about it.

Implicit memory can be categorised into three main types…

  1. Procedural memory

This involves the unconscious recall of skills, habits and motor movements. For example, playing a musical instrument or typing on a keyboard are all actions that rely on procedural memory. These skills become automatic through repeated practice and experience.

  1. Priming

Priming refers to the influence of prior knowledge on our subsequent behaviour or perception, even when we are not consciously aware of it.

It happens when having been exposed to one stimulus influences the way we respond to related stimuli. For example, if someone mentions the word “apple to you, you may be more likely to notice apples in your surroundings or think about apples. The initial exposure to the word “apple” has primed your brain to be more receptive to related stimuli.

  1. Classical conditioning

This involves the association between two stimuli, leading to a learned response. A classic example is Pavlov's experiment with dogs, where the sound of a bell (initially neutral) became associated with food (significant stimulus), leading to the dogs salivating (conditioned response) at the sound of the bell alone.

What is explicit memory?

On the other hand, explicit memory involves conscious recollection of facts, events and experiences. It is the type of memory that we access and retrieve intentionally. For instance, when students revise for an exam and consciously recall specific information, they are utilising their explicit memory.

Explicit memory can be categorised into two main types…

  1. Episodic memory

This refers to our ability to consciously recall specific events, experiences or episodes from our personal past. It involves remembering details such as the time, place, emotions and people involved.

For example, recalling your last vacation, a birthday celebration, meeting a friend for the first time or a significant life event are all instances of episodic memory at work. These memories are tied to a particular context and are autobiographical in nature.

  1. Semantic memory

This involves the conscious recollection of general knowledge and information that is not tied to a specific personal experience. It encompasses facts, concepts, ideas and language.

For instance, remembering the capital of a country, the meaning of a word or key historical dates are all examples of semantic memory. Unlike episodic memory, semantic memory is more abstract and focuses on understanding and retaining general knowledge.

Final thoughts

Our brains are very complex, and the research around memory can be confusing. There are many categories to take into account, each containing sub-categories.

Of course, teachers aren’t expected to become neuroscience experts to be able to teach effectively. However, as far as background knowledge goes, understanding the basic principles of memory (and its different types) can go a long way in understand how our students learn.

If that is something you’d like to learn more about, why not check out blog, What’s the difference between short-term, working and long-term memory?

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