Learn to Distinguish Between Implicit and Explicit Long-Term Memory
Have you ever found yourself stumped trying to explain to a friend how to get to your place despite having lived there your whole life?
Or maybe you hit a block when somebody asked you to tell them the lyrics to a song you were just singing along to? You’re probably familiar with both situations, so what’s the deal?
Turns out that the way you remember how to do things just doesn’t match up to the way you remember what to do—they are two wholly different ways of remembering things.
As proposed in 1976 by John Anderson, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, long-term memory can be viewed as the sum of its two complementary halves: implicit and explicit long-term memory.
Often confused for each other, implicit (knowing-how) memory and explicit (knowing-that) memory are two sides of the same coin.
The methods by which we store the different types of memory differ, as do our means of accessing them: there is no way for a basketball player to study his way into being drafted by a big-league team.
Learning how to tell implicit and explicit memory apart is the essential key to learning new skills and information.
FINGERPRINTING IMPLICIT AND EXPLICIT MEMORY
Since the proposal of this division of long-term memory into implicit and explicit memory, a lot of ink has been spilled debating their nature.
Cognitive psychology has concerned itself by and large with the processes of memory storage and retrieval and how these kinds of memory interact with the rest of the human psyche.
Working within the Atkinson–Shiffrin model of memory, which divides human memory into long-term and short-term memory, implicit and explicit memory are believed to lie firmly within long-term storage.
While the mechanism by which memories are passed from short-term storage into long-term are generally controversial, psychologists who work with long-term memory generally agree on how these memories are stored and formed.
Popularly called muscle memory or ‘knowing how’, implicit memory stands for the skills, reactions, thoughts, and opinions that we know or hold without any conscious effort on our part.
We acquire all of those through experience of course.
When a pro league basketball player hits a trey, he’s not consciously thinking about the trajectory of the ball or the angle of his feet, it’s as though he just knows how high to aim and how hard to shoot.
Implicit memories can be formed consciously just as well as unconsciously, but what’s important is that they’re formed by some sort of action or sensation.
In short, they’re formed by feeling or doing. Implicit memory is essentially automatic and generally relies on context and cue to function.
For example: you won’t be able to break out into a tango without the riffs of a Latin guitar.
Emotional responses are also an implicit memory: someone with a phobia or irrational fear of clowns has, at some point in their life, “learned” to be terrified of them. Despite consciously knowing that a clown should pose no threat, people fear them.
While you obviously need a small part of your consciousness, or none at all, to quickly move your hand if you put it under a hot stream of water, it would be a whole another story if you tried to remember to tell a story to your group of friends, with intentions to mention as many details as possible.
Having the verb “try” makes all the difference here.
In contrary to how implicit memory works, explicit memory consists of information which you learned consciously, and from which you recall memories by involving your will power.
In everyday terms, explicit memory is usually what people mean behind the statement that they “know” something.
What it is telling us is that once upon a time, they have had an intention to learn a specific statement, or to retain as many details from an important event.
This leads to the fact that there are different types of explicit memory, depending on what you are collecting.
Recalling movie-like parts of past experiences, in a way reliving them in your head, is a process taking place in the episodic memory.
With its name being more than fitting, episodic memory is the part of the brain’s storage which serves the purpose of a memoir, holding in explicitly acts that have passed.
A point which might be important to point out regarding episodic memory is that it is not completely reliable.
Our memory, in general, is not, but it might be the most significant here.
The quite simple explanation is that the human brain can’t store every single detail which goes into an “episode”.
The problem is created because humans can be unaware of this, and therefore expect from themselves to actually know every detail, when we really don’t.
But, in order to fulfill such expectation, people tend to add some details that in reality never happened.
The part of explicit memory which you worked on the most during your education is semantic memory.
Having been considered the inhabitancy of “general knowledge”, its job is to keep conceptual information, such as words, their meanings, and anything that is in the form of a fact.
So, the next time you can’t remember the exact beginning date of WWI, this is where to direct your thoughts too.
Basically, it covers anything that can be explained using language, as long as the knowledge is in the form of a fact of some kind.
So it doesn’t have to be the act of remembering a sentence from word to word, by heart, since it also covers ideas that you know something about or concepts.
Another interesting field which comes to semantic memory in order to be remembered is mathematics.
As one may expect, mathematical equations are covered in semantic memory, because it is a kind of a subject that doesn’t change much over time.
And this type of memory has also a function of allowing us to identify information and objects, but also understand the meaning of words, hence the name “semantic”.
If this reference didn’t stay with you after high school, semantics is a field of linguistics, and also logic, concerned with meaning, either of words or of implications.
With this being said, it can be considered that the main functions of explicit memory are the abilities to recall and to declare.
Because of this, you may also come across the equally fitting term “declarative memory”, which is preferred by some cognitive psychologists.
Even though it is common knowledge that cognitive functions are developed and controlled in the human brain, it was inevitable that such theory must specify which part of the organ was the main suspect, as it is a usual practice for psychologists who decide to go with the cognitive wave.
FOLLOWING THE TRACKS OF NEURAL IMPULSES
When entering the world of psychology, whether you just type it in your browser, or you prefer having a paper-back pocket manual.
Even taking a walk to the library, the physiology of the human nervous system is what you’re going be introduced by.
The development of psychology as an independent science started with testing sensory reactions, then paved its way up through conditioned reflexes.
Then psychology found one of its main domains on the surface and in depths of the human brain.
Truth be told, all of the above-stated phenomena does revolve around the brain, but it took psychology some time to go from the basics and externally visible stuff into the core itself because it isn’t easily accessible in a psychological matter.
Having an invasive surgical process, even if it gave access, wouldn’t do much about examining mentalist constructs.
Generally, it is needed to find a lot of latent indicators of such constructs through which we can make a conclusion about something that is an impactful factor to one’s behavior or memory.
After going through numerous examinations, and surely after getting statistics and physiology involved more in researches considering human mind, psychology and the core brain processes found their similarities and shared interests.
The bond has never been broken ever since, neither does it seem like it will be in the near, and even far, future.
Its name may give out the obvious, but later on, the branch of psychology which ended up making most significant relations with physiology, was cognitive psychology. It didn’t even need as much of invasive experiments as one might expect.
As expected, the bond between neuroscience and cognitive psychology has been proven to come out with numerous researches, experiments, and theories. The field of memory is not very different.
In an overall broad paper called “The Neuroanatomical, Neurophysiological and Psychological Basis of Memory: Current Models and Their Origins” by Eduardo Camina and Francisco Guell (Universidad de Navarra), alongside a lot of other memory models, neural correlates of long-term memory, and naturally implicit and explicit memory, have been broken down.
To begin with, it is very important to have in mind that different parts of the nervous system are usually meant to control different parts of your body or to conduct different psychological processes.
For example, the spinal cord controls simple reflexes, but centers in your frontal cortex are believed to control your speech amongst other things.
This non-chaotic pattern actually serves a good purpose in understanding the way functions of the central nervous system are shared between its different parts.
The spinal cord, which physically is placed the lowest in your body, compared to other parts of the nervous system, together with all the nerves that have their roots coming from it.
Accordingly, it controls reflexes, which are the most basic actions out of the whole system.
Then, in the middle part of the nervous system, which begins somewhere in the high point of your neck, or low point of the backside of your head, has the function to regulate processes which you have no consciousness of, but are a bit more complex, such as breathing and heartbeat.
And lastly, the part which takes place from somewhere around your ears all up straight to the front part of your head has a major role in everything related to human psyche which makes humans “homo sapiens”.
So: speech, behavior, thinking, decision making and, of course, memory are basically contained in your neocortex or the prefrontal lobe (the part of your brain where your forehead is)
But, this doesn’t mean that every part of your brain is a player of its own.
The most important characteristic considering the human body as a whole is the fact that those systems, even though they have their own prescribed jobs, have to work together and communicate, in order to keep us alive.
This is, of course, to be seen when researching every other psychological phenomena (ergo the common use of correlations when dealing with science and statistical side of research).
Of course, the millions of synapses in the brain are used for its different parts to communicate.
As implicit memory serves a huge purpose in remembering action patterns, scientists are led to believe that as you learn more actions, the connections between such centers grow stronger.
The main participators turn out to be the basal ganglia, the cerebellum, and the limbic system. And here’s why.
Basal ganglia are the part of the brain which is essential for communication, due to their placing.
They are surrounded by different brain structures, and they all in a way depend on basal ganglia to spread information.
And that is important because implicit memory, like the whole organism itself, works as an everlasting cycle of information.
The cerebellum is crucial to executing movements, and that function is easily proven. Apparently, by damaging this area people are stopped from relearning skills.
Therefore, a lot of recent studies have shown this part of the brain to be very important in the automating unconscious skills, which are exactly what implicit memory stores.
Finally, the limbic system found its role in controlling automatic movements.
It contains a kind of protein that turned up visible on neurological tests conducted on subjects while they were set to proceed with such movements.
When speaking in terms of different centers in the nervous system, what is important to know is that they are anything but chaotically shattered in their placing.
As mentioned, the frontal cortex is known to control functions like speech. Or your attention span. Actually, your behavior in general.
That takes to the conclusion that the frontal cortex is in charge of the consciousness. Even more, it is what makes humans, humans.
As it is to be seen in the photos, neither of the three previously mentioned brain structures are quite near the frontal lobe.
That’s exactly why they don’t have a crucial impact on your consciousness, but everything to do with implicit memory and unconsciously learned and conducted movements.
It is pretty clear that explicit memory storage takes a lot of more work, from creating such memory to start with, then to keep it for years, just in case it one day you mind end up needing it.
Just like you really might want to check that WWI beginning date, because you never know when you might start fancying a history enthusiast.
Such information people tend to express in a language form, so, of course, you now remembered that you should take a look in the semantic department of your long term memory.
Specifically parietal and temporal lobes are proven to be the most active during the process of remembering such information.
Of course, this was proven in an interesting experiment where subjects tended to pair pears and pineapples, instead of pears and light bulbs, even though the latter is more similar in shape.
These lobes proved to be essential when it comes to abstract and conceptual knowledge, and therefore semantic memory.
When recognizing that the WWI start date was mentioned for the second time around, you probably remembered the first paragraph in which you read it, and it possibly manifested as a small flashback.
Now you know that the word “episode” reminded you of earlier mentioned episodic memory, thanks to your semantic memory and abstract, language-based thinking.
But, you ask, where exactly is this endless episode TV show of your past taking place?
To understand this, it is best to truly look at those memories as if they were a multimedia construct. So, what is a TV show consisted of? Think in terms of your senses.
Firstly, there is obviously the visual part.
This characteristic is handled by centers in a part of the ventral temporal cortex because that is exactly where the nerves from the eyes come to an end.
Before you keep a memory, you must perceive something which that memory will be made of.
Secondly, since the ages of silent films are long gone, to have a true movie-like quality you must have sound together with the picture.
The storage area for such stimuli is placed in the ventral lateral cortex. It is an area near the ears, and that’s exactly where all the auditory memory comes to stay.
And finally, the one to manage and organize the way you remember experiences in such a way is the hippocampus. How was that proven?
Well, yet once again lab rats were sacrificed in the name of science, and it turns out that they weren’t able to organize what they felt as a whole, let alone have a memory of it.
Even though not everyone is a biology enthusiast, this kind of rundown serves the purpose of making psychological processes closer to you.
Now, it’s not just something hypothetical just floating around in the air, if you tried really hard and went to finish needed degrees, you could even touch it.
Besides putting such concepts into a concrete shape and environment, people tend to understand the world better when information is put in complete wholes.
That is what Gestalt psychology, one of the predecessors of modern cognitive psychology, proposed as their main thesis.
WHAT PICTURE DOES THIS PIECE OF THE PUZZLE FIT?
At this point, you know that long-term memory serves the purpose of a keeper for everything that had happened throughout your life, and has managed to stay with you.
The way the human brain is built, also makes it a diverse cognitive function, it has a few different parts that serve some quite different purposes.
Long-term memory is only the last destination every experience tends to end up at, and it is only one final part of the whole remembering process.
Imagine as if long-term memory is the job you educated yourself for, for years, and there were quite a few places and finish a long list of projects to be done.
Of course, there was a lot of information you heard along the way, which you do not remember now, but in a way, forgetting it also helped you to come where you might are, your final destination.
To start with, as said earlier, before something becomes a memory, it must be experienced.
The way people feel is broken down to simple stimuli, that is received by your sensorial organs. Therefore, the simplest form of memory is sensory memory.
Sensory memory has a short span – it retains information for only 1/5 to ½ of a second. Depending on which sense is activated by certain stimuli, there are different types of sensory memory.
The reason why this memory is so short-timed is that if we did remember every single stimulus from the outer world, we would be overwhelmed and dysfunctional.
When all sensorial experiences go through the filter of attention, which makes the difference between important and unimportant information from around us, they arrive at short-term memory.
Short-term memory, also called work-memory, is where information is being processed. There, it can stay for about 10 to 15 seconds, or up to a minute.
Its main function is to choose between which information is going to be sent to long-term memory, and which is going to end up being forgotten. Attention span characteristic here denote holding 7 ± 2 information at a time.
Finally, when after all the filtering an experience ends up being remembered, the beginning date of WWI able to be recalled and the ability to ride a bike becomes something you can rarely fail to do, your experiences have reached the second to last step in the process of remembering.
LAST STEP TO REMEMBERING
While the actual expiration date of a memory which made it to the long-term storage is still unknown to psychology, or rather, is still something no one can agree on, we all know that forgetting exists.
We are aware that once there was something we knew and now we do simply not.
Equally to the lasting of long-term memory, there still hasn’t been a theory about forgetting which everyone can agree on.
They differ from it being a spontaneous process to making it an active process based on interfering, to believing that it doesn’t exist and that we have it all stored somewhere only waiting to be used.
When considering this subject, it is wise to remember that the existence of the debate is actually a good place for science to be.
It can inspire, and when it is done inspiring it can result in a new conclusion which no one ever expected, and it could end up changing and improving everything.
It should also be considered about that matter how psychology as a whole, and even more the differential branches of it, are such a new, young science that it is kind of impossible to expect to have formed explanations. And for them to be as valid as people think those in physics are.
To add, this might be good to remember in general. How nothing that you look at as a dogmatic subject can push you towards improvement.
Like you can never improve your ability to learn and remember if you are always absolutely sure that your memory is unflawed.
But, why do we forget is maybe not something we should worry about, given how little is known about it.
Rather than that, the huge base of research and neurological proof of the way we remember should be used to improve our everyday life.
Even if you don’t know where your hippocampus is, you know that the mixture of visuals and audios is something that makes your experiences held still in your memory. You also know how abstract connecting proved to be more intuitive to humans than concrete, iconic thinking.
Most importantly, memory and the human psyche, in general, continues to be the proof of how the harmonic functioning of many different structures tends to give the best results.
Next time you have a hard time remembering a very important fact, associate it with your experience.
Just because types of memories are physiologically separated, it doesn’t mean they should be worked within that same separated way. Actually, it might be exactly why they in any way shouldn’t.
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