When it comes to how and why you react to things the way you do, nothing is more important than implicit memory. Do you ever feel intense emotion that you know is “more than the situation calls for”? Perhaps you think of these experiences as “over-reactions.” These intense emotional reactions are not over-reactions at all. They are directly proportional to how your brain interprets your experience through the grid of your implicit memory.
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Memory is the way in which a past experience affects how the mind will function in the future.
There are two layers of memory—implicit and explicit.
Explicit memory is what we tend to think of when we hear the word “memory.”
It’s important to note that a memory is not a thing. I used to think that a memory was a bunch of neurons that got together and got put into a bin—so you had a bin for Christmas memories and a bin for memories related to soccer, etc.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—the idea was that you could go into the brain, find every memory in which Clementine appeared, and delete that memory, delete that manilla folder.
But a memory is not a thing. It has no mass. It is not located anywhere. You can’t go find the 200 neurons that represent your memory of falling off a horse when you were 7 and cut them out of your brain. That’s not how memory works. There are no storage folders, no bins.
Implicit memory is far more important when it comes to how we actually live our lives.
The ability to create explicit memories does not develop until 18 months of age, but implicit memory is operational before you come out of the womb.
Everything you learn in the first 18 months of life is recorded in implicit—not explicit—memory.
Explicit memories are made as you do things like study for a test or go to the movies.
In other words, you have to be paying attention to record something in explicit memory.
However, implicit memories are created whether you are paying attention or not. Implicit memories are recorded automatically, without your awareness.
You don’t think to yourself, “I need to remember this.” You just remember it automatically, without thinking about it and without realizing that you are creating a memory at all.
For the first 18 months of your life—when you are completely dependent on your parents for everything—every experience you have is encoded in implicit memory.
The brain is not able to record explicit memories until around 18-24 months of age (which is why you don’t “remember” (air quotes) anything from when you were an infant).
I put remember in quotations because, far from not remembering anything from our first two years of life, we actually remember everything. Without even trying to.
The second thing to know about implicit memory is that when you recall an implicit memory, you don’t have the sensation that you are remembering something.
When asked to remember your 1st grade teacher, you think back and try to call to mind your teacher’s name and face.
As you do so you have a sensation in your body which tells you, “I’m thinking back in time and remembering something.” This sensation always accompanies the retrieval of explicit memory.
However, when you retrieve an implicit memory, there is no sensation of recall.
You don’t have that internal sensation that you are remembering something.
In other words, when you remember an implicit memory, you are not aware that you are remembering something from the past. It feels present.
Consider this example: suppose you and your friend are walking in the park and suddenly a cocker spaniel starts racing toward you. Immediately, your body floods with fear.
However, you have no sense of “Oh, this is because I’m remembering that I was attacked by a dog when I was 5.” Yet that implicit memory is precisely what is causing your body to feel fear.
Your friend, who had a friendly dog growing up, has a very different reaction. Without feeling any fear at all, she bends down on one knee and opens her arms to hug the incoming cocker spaniel.
Now, why do the two of you have such different reactions? Implicit memory.
Implicit memory is the reason you have a very different reaction from your friend. Her implicit memory told her that dogs are friendly and fun while yours told you that they are dangerous and frightening.
Your implicit memory tells you how the world works and what you can expect from the world.
If you were an art history major in college, you would know the difference between a Matisse and a Van Gogh. If presented with two paintings that you had never seen—one a Matisse and one a Van Gogh—you would instantaneously be able to tell which was which. Now, how could you possibly know that a particular painting was a Van Gogh if you had never seen the painting before? Implicit memory is how you know.
As you look at both paintings, you unconsciously and automatically remember all the Van Gogh paintings you have seen over the course of your life. These implicit memories tell you what a Van Gogh feels like. Implicit memory is about the “feel” of things.
Suppose that for the first 18 years of your life every painting you saw was painted by Van Gogh. You never saw any abstract paintings, or realist paintings, or modernist paintings—just Van Gogh. As an 18 year old you wouldn’t think, “this is what Van Gogh looks like” but “this is what paintings look like.”
This is precisely what happens with your understanding of, and expectations for, relationships. Your brain summarizes all your experiences of relating with your mother and instead of thinking, “this is what a relationship with my Mom is like,” you think “this is what relationships are like.”
When we leave home and set out into the world, we carry within us a storehouse of implicit memories. And those memories tell us what to expect around every bend.
We continue to record implicit memories throughout our lives, but experiences in adulthood wield a much weaker influence on the brain.
Childhood experiences create the foundation of our brain, and later experiences merely make adjustments to that foundation.
You never forget how to ride a bike. People don’t forget any capacity that depends on feel rather than fact.
Implicit memory is the brain’s sole learning component in the first years of life.
Do you ever feel intense emotion that you know is “more than the situation calls for”? Perhaps you think of these experiences as “over-reactions.”
For example, someone asks you a seemingly innocuous question and suddenly you feel enraged, or panicked, or ashamed.
These intense emotional reactions are not over-reactions at all. They are directly proportional to how your brain takes the other person’s words and interprets them through the grid of your implicit memory.
Something in the other person’s tone of voice or facial expression or choice of words has called to mind memories of deeply significant past experiences marked by a similar tone of voice or facial expression or choice of words.
And you are remembering these experiences, but because these experiences are stored in implicit memory, you are not aware that you are remembering anything at all. It’s not that you are “too sensitive” or a “rage-aholic” or a “drama queen.” You simply have a brain with a treasure trove of implicit memories.
You may be wondering, if implicit memory is so important, how do you come to know what is stored in your implicit memory? Your body holds the answer. The sensations in your body always tell the truth; they never lie.
As you go through your day, your internal bodily experience (known as arousal) is constantly in flux. Arousal lies on a continuum from numb and shut down (low arousal) to panic and terror (high arousal).
The surefire way to begin to understand your implicit memories is to pay attention when you feel shifts in your bodily experience, shifts in your level of arousal.
For example, when do you find yourself going numb or shutting down? When do you find yourself panicking or becoming fearful? Situations that evoke strong emotional responses in us make implicit memory known.
For help with engaging your story in a group setting, consider the Allender Center’s Certificate Program.