What is Implicit Memory?

What is Implicit Memory?

Learn about what implicit memory is, how it works, and how it can affect our behavior.

You may have heard the terms short-term memory and long-term memory. As the names suggest, short-term memory is information that you remember for a short time, like what time your appointment is at today. And long-term memories can be retrieved throughout your life, like your birthday.

Implicit memory is a type of long-term memory. It’s what allows you to perform daily activities or respond to something without having to consciously think about it. Once the memory is formed, the action or response feels like it plays out on its own. Specific mechanics of the activity are often difficult to describe in words (Roediger, 1990).

In addition, implicit memory not only allows us to perform everyday tasks without having to “think”, but also influences our behavior, how we relate to others, how we respond to things around us, and even how we view ourselves

How Does Implicit Memory Work?

Implicit memories are formed through experience. With practice or repetition, eventually, the activity or behavior becomes automatic.

A classic example is riding a bike. When learning, you had to concentrate on how to do it—to focus on minor adjustments in balance, speed, and steering. But with practice, you no longer have to consciously focus on how to do it—you just “know”. It feels effortless, and this knowledge doesn’t fade over time. You remember it even if you haven’t done it for years (Schott et al., 2005).

In addition, implicit memories shape who you are—your behaviors, how you relate to others, and your beliefs about yourself. For example, if you grew up with a highly critical parent, you may assume that others are criticizing you even when they’re not. Your reaction is protective and adaptive based on previous experience. In this example, implicit memory can also have detrimental effects on your self-esteem, or hold you back from doing something you want to do out of fear of failure or criticism.

Implicit Memory Examples

● Walking

● Riding a bike

● Driving

● Typing

● Playing a musical instrument

● Navigating a familiar area such as your house or neighborhood

“How we are seen can literally call parts of us into existence and shape new selves in the image of the one seeing us.”
― Bonnie Badenoch

Types of Implicit Memory

Types of implicit memory include habits, skills (procedural), priming, and conditioning (Squire & Dede, 2015).


Everyone has experienced habits, both good and bad. Habits are characterized by automatic repetitive behaviors, and they don’t respond well to changes in rewards (Squire & Dede, 2015). Other habits can include negative self-talk or healthy habits such as exercise.


Skills, or procedural memory, is knowing the steps of how to perform an activity without having to “think” about it. When you learned to tie your shoes, you had to concentrate on the mechanics of the process. With practice, the task feels effortless, and eventually, you can do it without conscious attention.


Priming is when exposure to something affects your reaction to something similar without conscious awareness. For example, if you listen to someone talking about fruit, then are later asked to name something yellow, you are more likely to name a banana rather than a sunflower. You were “primed” to think about fruit. Advertising uses this quite effectively to influence our buying behavior.


Conditioning occurs when a stimulus that triggers a reaction or behavior is paired with another unrelated neutral stimulus. After repetition, the neutral stimulus triggers the reaction. An often-cited example is Pavlov’s Dog experiment. The experimenter rang a bell (the neutral stimulus) every time the dogs were fed. Over time, the dogs associated the bell with food and started salivating when the bell rang even if there was no food present. Conditioning is similar to priming, but conditioning is more specific and more immediate. The dogs salivate immediately after the bell rings, not three hours later, or when they hear a similar sound.

Where Is Implicit Memory Stored?

Explicit and implicit memories are stored in different regions of the brain (Squire & Dede, 2015). Brain areas involved in implicit memory are the basal ganglia, the neocortex, and the cerebellum. By contrast, explicit memories are stored in the hippocampus. Researchers believe that the amygdala, where emotion is processed, plays a part in both implicit and explicit memory processing (Squire & Dede, 2015). This may explain why a sensory stimulus (sight, sound, smell,) may trigger a strong emotional reaction which can lead to the resurfacing of a memory of a past event.

In Sum

Implicit memories are developed and operate unconsciously and therefore may be difficult to address. But they can be important for self-understanding or to help change unwanted behavior or painful emotions. Recognizing how implicit memories work, and how they trigger behavior and strong emotions can be a first step in developing healthy ways to deal with them. We don’t have to allow them to hold us back from doing things we want to do in life or sabotage our relationships. Mindfulness and meditation techniques can be particularly helpful in gaining some control.


● Roediger, H. L. (1990). Implicit memory: Retention without remembering. American Psychologist, 45(9), 1043–1056.

● Schott, B. H., Henson, R. N., Richardson-Klavehn, A., Becker, C., Thoma, V., Heinze, H.-J., & Düzel, E. (2005). Redefining implicit and explicit memory: The functional neuroanatomy of priming, remembering, and control of retrieval. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(4), 1257–1262.

● Squire, L. R., & Dede, A. J. O. (2015). Conscious and unconscious Memory Systems. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, 7(3)