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.
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.
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.