What is Implicit Memory? Implicit vs Explicit Memories

implicit memory

Implicit memory, also known as unconscious or automatic memory, refers to the unconscious form of memory that influences our thoughts and behaviours without conscious awareness. It encompasses all the information acquired and stored in the brain, which enables us to carry out various tasks such as riding a bike, typing on a keyboard, and even simpler actions like tying shoelaces.

Implicit memory (IM) is essential for executing numerous daily tasks, as it allows us to perform actions almost automatically and without the need for conscious thought. For example, when driving a car, we perform many actions without consciously thinking about it, such as changing gears, applying brakes, and making turns. This is due to our implicit memory.

Similarly, when we read, we don’t need to think about each letter’s sound, as we are able to recognize words and understand their meaning instantly. This ability is a result of our implicit memory.

Difference Between Implicit and Explicit Memory

There are two primary types of memory: implicit memory and explicit memory. While implicit memory relies on our unconscious mind and is responsible for skills and habits, explicit memory deals with conscious recollection of facts and events.

To be more specific, explicit memory, also known as declarative memory, allows us to actively remember past experiences like our first day of school, the name of a favourite movie, or any other specific event or piece of knowledge.

Explicit memory can be divided into episodic memory and semantic memory. The recollection of one’s own personal past is known as episodic memory, whereas semantic memories contain factual facts and concepts such as names.

In contrast, implicit memory works in the background, guiding our actions without the need for conscious attention. For example, we don’t need to actively think about how to walk while walking or how to form visual impressions of printed letters into words when reading a book.

Types of Implicit Memory

Through various types of implicit memory – priming, procedural memory, and conditioning – an array of cognitive mechanisms are at work, allowing individuals to process and store information without conscious awareness.


Priming is the concept that exposure to one stimulus can influence a response to a subsequent one without conscious direction or intent. The priming effect is the influence of a rapidly presented priming stimulus on the processing of a second (or target) stimulus that appears shortly after.

Since priming is usually unaffected by brain lesions that impair conscious or explicit memory, it has been suggested that priming is associated with implicit, or unconscious, memory.

Priming is one of the main types of IM, referring to the enhancement of identification and processing of stimuli due to a prior exposure to similar or related ones. It can influence the formation of new memories and occurs without conscious awareness. There are two main types of priming: perceptual, which is based on the physical form of a stimulus, and conceptual.

Priming studies have shown that this form of implicit memory is present in both healthy individuals and amnesic patients. Depending on the test, amnesic patients have difficulty completing certain conceptual priming tasks. For instance, their performance on category instance production tasks is normal, but they demonstrate impaired priming when answering general knowledge queries.

Procedural Memory

Procedural memory, another type of implicit memory, involves the learning and storage of motor skills and processes such as habit formation. These memories are typically acquired through repetition and practice and do not require conscious recall when performing the learned task.

Procedural memory encompasses various forms of automatic memory, such as brushing teeth or typing on a keyboard. Skill learning has been recognized as an essential aspect of procedural memory since the classic studies on patient H.M by Brenda Milner and her colleagues.


Conditioning is a form of implicit memory in which associations are formed between stimuli and responses. There are two main types of conditioning: classical and operant.

In classical conditioning, an originally neutral stimulus comes to trigger a response after being paired with another stimulus that naturally triggers that response.

Operant conditioning, on the other hand, involves learning from the consequences of behaviour to either increase or decrease the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated in the future. Conditioning plays an important role in forming emotional memories and behavioural patterns.

Functions and Influence

Besides learning and retaining various skills, such as playing an instrument, riding a bike, or typing, IM influences our perception of events and stimuli. It affects how we process new information and react to various stimuli based on our past experiences.

Emotions are also a crucial part of implicit memory. We may form emotional associations with certain events or stimuli without even realizing it, which can then trigger emotional reactions in future encounters.

Implicit memory works closely with classical conditioning, a form of learning where a neutral stimulus comes to evoke a response due to its association with another stimulus that naturally produces that response. For example, if a sound consistently precedes a pleasant event, individuals may come to associate the sound with a positive experience, leading to a positive response whenever the sound is heard.

Implicit memory operates without our conscious awareness, meaning that our decisions and actions can be influenced by memories stored in this system without us even realizing it. This unconscious influence can be both beneficial and detrimental, as it may guide our behaviour in certain situations or contribute to biases and stereotypes.

Neuroscience of Implicit Memory

In the same way that there are various forms of memory, memory cannot be attributed to any single region or structure of the brain. This type of memory involves various brain structures and neural processes, each playing a specific role in it’s different aspects.

The hippocampus, a critical structure for explicit (conscious) memory, is not involved implicit memory processing. The two major brain regions associated with implicit memory are the basal ganglia and the cerebellum.

The basal ganglia, for example, contribute to habit formation and procedural memory, which involve learning skills and habits, such as riding a bike or typing on a keyboard. Evidence from research suggests that basal ganglia and medial temporal lobe memory systems are activated simultaneously during learning.

Conversely, the cerebellum is involved in motor learning and the association of provocations and responses, like in classical conditioning. Professor Michikazu Matsumura found in a 2004 study that the cerebellum is involved in implicit motor skill learning, with cerebellum activation varying according to the hand used in the task.

Additionally, Barbara Tillmann and colleagues at the Centre de Recherche en Neurosciences de Lyon, in a 2008 paper, found that cerebellar patients demonstrate preserved implicit knowledge of association strengths in musical sequences.

The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure within the temporal lobe of the brain, engages in emotional learning. It appears to be involved in both explicit and implicit memory, although the exact nature of its role in IM is not yet clear.

Perirhinal Cortex

A small area of the medial temporal lobe called the perirhinal cortex was identified as critical for forming unconscious (implicit) conceptual memories by researchers at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain in a 2010 study.

Wei-chun Wang, the study’s main author, and his colleagues administered memory tests to individuals with amnesia and known damage to the perirhinal cortex or other brain regions. In addition to memory tests, they performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) examinations on healthy volunteers.

In a typical test, the subjects were given a long list of words, such as chair, table, and spoon, and asked to consider how pleasant each was. Later, they asked the participants to generate terms for various categories, including “furniture.”

Amnestics with damage to the perirhinal cortex performed poorly on the tests, whereas the same brain region lit up in fMRI scans of healthy control subjects.

Encoding and Retrieval in Implicit Memory

In implicit memory, the encoding process involves the automatic and unconscious absorption of information. This memory category is largely responsible for skills, habits, and other procedural tasks, making the encoding process less conscious than explicit memory.

During encoding, sensory information, such as visual and auditory, is transformed into a format that can be stored for later retrieval. For example, the role of implicit memory in speech perception plays a role in language development and understanding.

Unlike explicit memory, implicit memory does not rely on active rehearsal to be stored. Instead, it is encoded through mere exposure to stimuli or through repetition of a skill, allowing individuals to perform tasks automatically without conscious effort. But there is a type of implicit memory priming known as repetition priming that occurs when a stimulus’ classification or identification is aided by a previous presentation of the same impetus.

Automatic Retrieval

IM is automatically retrieved, meaning that it is not deliberately or consciously accessed. This unconscious retrieval influences various aspects of an individual’s performance, such as motor skills, cognitive tasks, and emotional reactions to stimuli.

For example, tying your shoelaces is an action that relies on implicit memory; once a person learns how they can do so without consciously recalling each step involved in the process. This automaticity allows for more efficient and seamless execution of routine tasks and learned procedures.

Challenges in Retrieval

Although implicit memory retrieval is generally automatic and unconscious, there can be problems associated with it. One of the primary challenges in understanding IM retrieval is distinguishing it from explicit memory, which is the conscious, intentional recollection of facts or events. Researchers have found that some implicit memory tests may require more attention during retrieval, complicating the distinction between these two forms of memory.

Furthermore, certain factors can interfere with the automatic retrieval of implicit memories. For example, stress or anxiety may temporarily disrupt unconscious retrieval processes, leading to decreased performance on tasks that rely on implicit memory.

Similarly, physical or mental fatigue can also impact the efficiency of automatic retrieval. Additionally, the automatic retrieval of implicit memories is susceptible to interference from similar tasks or information, known as proactive or retroactive interference.


Amnesia is a condition characterized by a partial or complete loss of memory, typically caused by brain injury, disease, or psychological trauma. Despite the memory loss, individuals with amnesia may still be able to display implicit memory abilities.

One aspect of IM that may be preserved in amnesic individuals is the learning of new associations between unrelated words and objects. Studies have found that individuals with amnesia can show normal implicit memory for new associations while having impaired explicit memory, which requires conscious recall of information.

Additionally, amnesic patients could retain some new semantic learning despite their inability to explicitly recall the newly learned information. One study showed that amnesic patients exhibited implicit memory and new semantic learning in posttraumatic amnesia, pointing towards the possibility that different memory systems in the brain, some of which are damaged in amnesia, can still support implicit expressions of memory.

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Last Updated on September 26, 2023