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Implicit vs. explicit memory: The fundamentals of long-term memory

You’re in the break room making yourself a cup of coffee. As you stick the K-cup in the machine and pour in water, you mentally review the revenue points you want to bring up during your sales presentation in 30 minutes.

This situation might sound like just another day at work, but there’s quite a bit going on inside your brain. You’re tapping into your implicit memories when you go on autopilot to make the coffee, while also relying on explicit memories to recall the revenue presentation points.  

Not sure what separates implicit and explicit memories? Read on to learn the difference, as well as tips for improving your memory. 

What is implicit memory?

Implicit memory refers to the ability to instinctively recall information without effort. This information could be anything from basic motor skills, like remembering how to walk, to deeply ingrained habits, like writing the letter “A.”

There are three types of implicit memory to know about:

  • Procedural memory: Skills you can effortlessly perform without real thought or intention. Most people can tie their shoes or hum their favorite song without directly thinking about how to do it. Learn more about improving this facet of your memory creation process in our guide to procedural memory
  • Priming: Memories created through association (also sometimes referred to as classical conditioning). These associations could be sounds, sights, or even smells. For instance, if you frequently meditate with a chant, the sound of it may make you calmer. 
  • Emotional conditioning: Events that cause strong emotions can condition people to recognize stimuli quickly and react accordingly. A good example of this is people who are afraid of thunder. The flash of lighting triggers their conditioning, which could result in them immediately covering their ears and shutting their eyes. 

From a biological point of view, implicit memories primarily involve our basal ganglia and cerebellum—areas of the brain that are in charge of motor control. For this reason, many of our implicit memories are what we usually refer to as “muscle memory,” the repetitive motions we unconsciously know how to do. 

Examples of implicit memories

Here are some more examples of implicit memories, plus what kind of implicit memory they’d be categorized under:

  • Driving a car (Procedural)
  • Texting (Procedural)
  • Making a cup of tea (Procedural)
  • Recalling your parents when you hear the word “love” (Priming)
  • Seeing the silhouette of the Golden Arches and thinking of McDonald's (Priming)
  • Smelling a certain smell and remembering a place with that same smell (Priming) 
  • A familiar jingle in the summer causes kids to look for the ice cream truck (Emotional)
  • Your cat looking for food after it hears a can opener (Emotional)
  • Children crying when they see a needle (Emotional)

What is explicit memory?

Explicit memory (also called declarative memory) is a kind of long-term memory that requires focus and effort to recall. Remembering the name of an old school teacher or how to perform calculus would likely require using your explicit long-term memory. 

Importantly, the same task may be an implicit or an explicit memory for different people. If you often cook, then frying an egg may be automatic. But the task might be difficult to remember for people who never make eggs. 

There are two types of explicit memory:

  • Episodic memory: Memories about past experiences or things that happened to you. 
  • Semantic memory: Memories that include facts and information about our world, like remembering a capital city name or dividing 84 by three. Learn more in our guide to semantic memory

Examples of explicit memories

Here are a few examples of both episodic and semantic explicit memories.

  • The time you broke your leg at school (Episodic)
  • Your first vacation as a family (Episodic)
  • Yesterday's meeting with corporate (Episodic)
  • The order of the planets in our solar system (Semantic)
  • How to solve for x (Semantic)
  • Recalling what the word “skyscraper” means (Semantic)

How to improve your implicit and explicit long-term memory

Memory (and the brain, in general) is still a mysterious topic we don’t fully understand. With that said, there are a few research-backed tactics for strengthening both implicit and explicit memory. Try out these tips to boost your long-term memory.

Reduce mental stress in your daily life

Stress is very much a mixed bag when it comes to memory creation. When it’s sudden and acute, like with a car accident, stress forms memories that last a lifetime.

However, most people don’t have (nor do they want) this kind of stress regularly. Instead, most people suffer a more dull, daily sort of stress that often hurts long-term memory functions. According to a 2010 study published in the journal of Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, people learning under stress were less likely to remember what they learned than those in a stress-free environment.   

Improve your long-term memory retention by reducing stress with these tips:

  • Achieve better work-life balance: Work is a common source of stress in people’s lives. You can’t always work less, but you can try to completely switch off from work when you’re home to give yourself a chance to destress as best you can. 
  • Exercise more often: Exercise isn't just for your body—it’s also amazingly good for your mind. The science is clear. If you’re feeling stressed, a regular exercise routine will help.   
  • Avoid information overload: As people consume more and more information every year, this overstimulation takes its toll on the brain. Avoid this problem by recognizing habits that promote information overload or using an AI memory tool to reduce the amount of information you have to process in the first place.  

Stay healthy

By investing in your own health, you can improve your brain’s ability to store long-term memories. 

Here are just a couple of ways health has been shown to impact human memory processes:

You’ve probably heard these tips before—eat healthy foods, sleep more, and exercise often—since they all improve your overall health. But if you’re looking for another reason to adopt these habits, boosting your long-term memory is another to add to the list.

Use memory techniques

You may not be able to have a photographic memory, but with work, you can get a lot closer than you are now. As our general knowledge about memory systems increases, we discover more strategies for “hacking” our brains to retain more of what we learn. 

monkey, writing, with a pencil

Here are a couple of ways to improve your long-term memory retention:

  • Actively learn: If you want to remember something important, actively learn it by writing it down, saying it out loud, or making associations with other concepts. 
  • Use mnemonic devices: NEWS and ROY G. BIV are just a few of the mnemonic devices many of us probably learned from a young age. Not only are they fun, but studies have repeatedly shown that using them improves your chances of remembering things over the long term. 
  • Try spaced repetition: Periodically coming back and relearning something is a strong way to entrench it in your long-term memory. So instead of repeatedly cramming repetitions, it's better to review what you’re learning once a day, then once a week, and then once a month, and so on until it’s stuck in your long-term memory. 

Don’t forget to brush up on other forms of memory

Some things you learn you don’t need to remember for a lifetime. For instance, your grocery list is important today, but you’ll have a new one to remember next week. For this reason, improving short-term memory is just as important as strengthening your long-term memory.

That’s why we created this guide to help you strengthen your working memory. It’ll help you remember more about what you read and encounter in everyday life so that you can work more efficiently and remember more of what you need to know.