Differences Between Implicit and Explicit Long-Term Memory

Information that you have to consciously work to remember is known as explicit memory, while information that you remember unconsciously and effortlessly is known as implicit memory. People often focus more on the topic of explicit memory, but researchers are becoming increasingly interested in how implicit memory works and how it influences knowledge and behavior.

As any student can tell you, sometimes it takes a lot of work and effort to commit information to memory. When you're studying for a big exam, it might take hours of practice in order to remember what you studied. However, some other events, details, and experiences enter our memory with little or no effort. For example, on the way to class, you might hear a catchy pop song on the radio. Days later, you find yourself still humming that same tune.

Why does it seem like some things are so difficult to remember and other things so easy? What's the difference?

explicit and implicit memory
Illustration by Cindy Chung, Verywell

Explicit Memory

When you're trying to intentionally remember something (like a formula for your statistics class or a list of dates for your history class), this information is stored in your explicit memory. People use these memories every day, from remembering information for a test to recalling the date and time of a doctor's appointment.

Explicit memory is also known as declarative memory since you can consciously recall and explain the information.

Types of Explicit Memory

  1. Episodic memory: These are your long-term memories of specific events, such as what you did yesterday or your high school graduation.
  2. Semantic memory: These are memories of facts, concepts, names, and other general knowledge.

Examples of Explicit Memory

Some tasks that require the use of explicit memory include remembering what you learned in your psychology class, recalling your phone number, identifying who the current president is, writing a research paper, and remembering what time you're meeting a friend to go to a movie.

  • Remembering the names and locations of different countries on a map
  • Recalling an event that happened in the past
  • Recalling all of the items on your shopping list
  • Being able to remember the birth dates of friends and family members
  • Remembering an important event from your life such as your school graduation, wedding, or another notable milestone

Many examples of explicit memory involve textbook learning or experiential memories. These are things that you consciously need to bring into awareness.

Implicit Memory

Things that people don't purposely try to remember are stored in implicit memory. This kind of memory is both unconscious and unintentional. Implicit memory is also sometimes referred to as nondeclarative memory since you are not able to consciously bring it into awareness.

Where explicit memories are conscious and can be verbally explained, implicit memories are usually non-conscious and not verbally articulated. Implicit memories are often procedural and focused on the step-by-step processes that must be performed in order to complete a task. 

Procedural memories, such as how to perform a specific task like swinging a baseball bat or making toast, are one type of implicit memory since you don't have to consciously recall how to perform these tasks. While implicit memories are not consciously recalled, they still influence how you behave as well as your knowledge of different tasks.

Examples of Implicit Memory

Some examples of implicit memory include singing a familiar song, typing on your computer keyboard, and brushing your teeth. Riding a bike is another example. Even after going years without riding one, most people are able to hop on a bike and ride it effortlessly.

  • Navigating a familiar area such as your house or neighborhood
  • Remembering the words to a popular song after hearing the first few notes
  • Recalling how to boil water to fix dinner
  • Knowing how to use utensils
  • Remembering how to drive a car
  • Knowing how to dress yourself each day

As you can see, these are skills that you learn and then don't have to relearn again in order to perform them. These memories are largely unconscious and occur automatically; you don't need to think about all of the exact steps you need to follow in order to complete each task.

How Explicit and Implicit Memory Work

In order to understand some of the key differences between these two types of memory, it can be helpful to compare the two:

Explicit Memory

  • Are encoded to memory and later retrieved

  • Are often formed deliberately through rehearsal

  • Can be encoded unconsciously and tied to emotions

  • May be drawn into awareness through associations

Implicit Memory

  • Begins with learning skills and mastering a task

  • Becomes automatic over time with repetition

  • Recall is often dependent upon context and cues

  • Can result in priming, or responding the same way to similar stimuli

Here's a quick demonstration that you can try to show how implicit and explicit memory work.

Type the following sentence without looking down at your hands: "Every red pepper is tantalizing." Now, without looking, try naming the ten letters that appear in the top row of your keyboard.

You probably found it quite easy to type the above sentence without having to consciously think about where each letter appears on the keyboard. That task requires implicit memory. Having to recall which letters appear in the top row of your keyboard, however, is something that would require explicit memory. Since you have probably never sat down and intentionally committed the order of those keys to memory, it's not something that you are able to easily recall.

Influences on Explicit and Implicit Memory

Research suggests that there are a number of factors that can influence the formation of both explicit and implicit memory, including stress levels and emotional states.

One study found that high-stress levels on working memory, a part of short-term memory that acts as a temporary holding space for information people are focusing on at the moment. This part of memory is important in the formation of explicit memories. The research also suggested that stress may actually facilitate the formation of implicit memories for negative emotional information.

Studies have also suggested that mood can also play an important role in the formation and recall of explicit and implicit memories. 

A Word From Verywell

Explicit and implicit memory play important roles in shaping your ability to recall information and interact in your environment. Knowing some of the major differences between the two is important for understanding how memory works.

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