We Have Two Kinds of Long Term Memory and Each Is Important for Learning and Performance

Last week we wrote about long term memory and memorization. Usually when people talk about long term memory they fail to distinguish that learners have two types:

  • Explicit (or declarative) memory
  • Implicit (or non-declarative) memory

Types of memory

Explicit memory is things you know, that you can express in words. For example: Albany is the capital of New York State.

Implicit memory is what you can do, without necessarily being able to state in words how you do it. For example: riding a bike.

They each use different mechanisms in the brain for storage and recall, but sometimes explicit memories become implicit — and this is important for performance.

Many years ago (pre-smart phone), the company I worked for moved locations. The new location was about an hour from my home. I knew how to get there using major roads, but I also knew those roads were really busy during rush hour. So, I bought a road atlas (remember, pre-GPS) and traced out a route that used small local roads. The first week or so of my commute was taxing on my brain: go three miles and turn right at the traffic light, go another four miles and turn left at the Exxon station, etc. Coming home was even harder because the distances to the landmarks were different and they were on the other side of the road. Gradually over a few weeks I memorized the route. And after a few months I would often drive to work, listen to the radio, think, daydream, and pull into the parking lot not remembering the drive at all. My explicit memory had become implicit.

So, what does this have to do with performance? Some explicit memories will remain explicit (e.g. the capital of New York). But others, that we use and repeat often, will become implicit. Those tasks will become automatic and demand very little cognitive load. They will be easy to perform. Think about a new sales representative going through the steps of a sales call. Initially he/she has to think through each step, but over time the presentation becomes easy. Objection handling becomes easy too, because chances are the sales rep has heard these objections before – all resulting in a smoother presentation and a higher likelihood for success.

So, the key to creating implicit memories, as is often the case in learning, is repetition and retrieval practice.



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