What is Implicit Memory?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Implicit memory is a fascinating concept, asserting that there are many things people automatically know, in almost any given situation, without trying to remember. These things are simply present, having been learned before, and take no effort to know. Many physical tasks are implicit; most people don’t forget how to walk, for instance, and they don’t have to remind themselves how to do it each time they stand up. Other forms of implicit memory also exist. One area in which this form of memory is most studied is in people with brain impairment, and a variety of tests suggest that unconscious remembering may remain to a higher degree, while conscious or explicit memory is reduced in some people with brain deficits.

Implicit memory would include knowing how to walk.
Implicit memory would include knowing how to walk.

It’s not surprising that psychology would be particularly fascinated with implicit memory, since many psychological theories espouse belief in an unconscious. This contains ideas, thoughts, and beliefs that may drive behavior/thoughts that even the conscious person can’t explain. The link between an unconscious thought/feeling process and implicit behavior isn’t fully clear, but studies are beginning to establish that implied and explicit remembering are often completely separated.

While an amnesiac can not use explicit memory to recall much, they may still be able to use implicit memory for certain purposes.
While an amnesiac can not use explicit memory to recall much, they may still be able to use implicit memory for certain purposes.

Some of the most compelling work on implicit memory has been done in testing people with forms of amnesia. The amnesiac can’t use explicit memory to recall very much, but given exposure to certain things they may be able to use implied memory to produce certain answers. Some of this testing depends on previous exposure to some form of prompt, often a word, that then gets produced without needing to reach for it at a subsequent point. While not all explicit and implicit memory may be separated, it’s suggested that with amnesia, implied memory may still be very strong, even if explicit memory isn’t.

Relying on implicit memory is often part of learning strategies. Students are given material they may need to know for testing, and in studying that material they may so firmly place it in their minds that they will always remember it. This isn’t always the case and lots of people do forget what they’ve learned as they age.

While facts might be forgotten, it’s likely students will have automatic recall of certain things, such as how to take a test, how to write an essay, and a general sense of topics studied. Remembrance of these might be automatic, and a student who returns to school after an absence of 20 years, might immediately feel comfortable in the academic environment, especially when restudying any material previously studied.

Studies on differences in implicit and explicit memory may be of use in addressing issues of memory damage and in teaching unconventional learners. How to most easily exploit the implicit memory system is a consideration for those who design curriculum.

How to write an essay is often an implicit memory, which means people remember how to do it throughout their lives.
How to write an essay is often an implicit memory, which means people remember how to do it throughout their lives.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments



An important question. I think that it is possible to know things without reasoning them out fully, this is how animals recall necessary functions. We as humans have the unique capacity for logic and scientific reasoning, but that does not eliminate our need for implicit memory functions, which have no "logical" base per se.


I find it hard to believe that people can just "know" things. Isn't there necessarily a logical basis for all memory and function?


Episodic memory is explicit and can be stated solidly in logical terms. It is a memory of events occurring in direct relation to the person. Implicit memories are somewhat beyond explanation by the person, they are bases for other things, being taken as a given.


This kind of memory resembles animal instinct and is almost involuntary. It exists in the unconscious mind to a greater extent than normal memory. We don't have to think hard to retrieve it, it is strongly present, even if we don't fully understand why we do it. This kind of memory involves minimal thought.

Post your comments
Forgot password?