By Alissa Bagan, MS

Our brains are truly remarkable! The adult human brain has about 100 billion neurons that create about 2 million miles of neural highways in our brains (Badenoch, 2008). Neuroscience is finding more and more fascinating facets of the mind and of consciousness itself. For example, did you know that there are different types of memory? Most of the time, when we think about memory, we think about an active, conscious process like recalling an event, a number, or a name. This is what neurobiologists call explicit memory. But did you know that there is another type of memory? A kind of memory much deeper and in some ways much more powerful in our daily experience? This kind of memory is called implicit memory.

Implicit memory is different from explicit memory particularly because it doesn’t require our awareness to work. Indeed, implicit memories are the only type of memory available to us during our first 12 – 18 months (Badenoch, 2008). From birth (and maybe even earlier according to some neuroscience research), implicit memory encodes information for us, helping us to become more efficient. It takes complex interactions from the outside world and divides them into distinct categories such as “good” and “bad.” Implicit memories help us to develop generalized, nonverbal conclusions about the way life works.

The implicit system is comprised of elements of behavioral impulses, affective experience, perceptions, sensations, and images, all of which can occur far below the threshold of awareness.  This is very different from a coherent narratives about the way the world works. When implicit memories are activated in our daily lives, they operate as if they do not have a time (i.e., past) associated with them. This means that we will interpret any impulse, sensation, image, or emotional surge as being caused by something that is occurring in the present moment of our experience, even if they are not at all related.

Let me leave you with an example to better illustrate how implicit memories work. Imagine that you are at work having lunch. As you eat, your mind is consciously thinking about an email you need to write. At the same time that your conscious mind is thinking about the email, a tall, brunette woman is walking toward you. Add to the mix that your very critical mother was tall and brunette. About a second or two later you might notice that you feel uneasy. What your conscious mind didn’t notice is that just before that second, your eyes moved down, your blood pressure began to increase, the muscles in your jaw and neck began to tense, and a flash of your mother’s face whizzed across your mind. Then, noticing your feelings of unease, the conscious part of your mind goes to work trying to find a present-day explanation for why you have this feeling. Was it the email?  Finding an answer to this becomes further complicated as you now have to interact with the woman and begin to notice that you want to get away from her. Your conscious mind searches for what it is about her that is triggering you to feel uncomfortable, unaware that the roots of your responses lie not in this present experience, but in the past. Your implicit memory had generalized complex interactions from your past experience into the implicit, unconscious, nonverbal generalized conclusion that tall, brunette women are dangerous.

Take home message; The fact that there is so much going on inside our very minds and bodies that is occurring outside of our awareness, not to mention whether or not we want it to, provides us with an opportunity to stand back in humble wonder (although I wouldn’t blame you if at first it caused you some anxiety!). Indeed, so much of our experience, even our very thoughts and feelings, are often out of our conscious control! I propose then, that the goal is not to try to control them, but rather, with this knowledge, to learn a new kind of relationship with ourselves. A kinder, more curious, and non-judgmental one.

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