Learn to Distinguish Between Implicit and Explicit Long-Term Memory

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 an annoying 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

Implicit and Explicit 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. While most of the information you find about memory tends to focus specifically on explicit memory, researchers are becoming increasingly interested in how implicit memory works and how it influences our knowledge and behavior.

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. We use these memories every day, from remembering information for a test to recalling the date and time of a doctor's appointment. This type of memory is also known as declarative memory since you can consciously recall and explain the information.

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.

Types of Explicit Memory

There are two major 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.

Implicit Memory

Things that we don't purposely try to remember are stored in our 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.

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.

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

A Demonstration of How Each Kind Works

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.

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Article Sources

  • Bauer PJ. Memory Development. In: Comprehensive Developmental Neuroscience: Neural Circuit Development and Function in the Brain. Rubenstein JLR, Rakic P, eds. Elsevier;2013:297-314. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-397267-5.09994-5.