Everything you need to know about explicit memory
Ever wondered how your brain remembers your first crush, or who won Eurovision in 1989? Everything on explicit memory.
Explicit memory is the conscious recall of information that has been encoded by your brain. It’s the type of memory that allows you to remember things like your name, face and address.
What is explicit memory?
Explicit memory is your conscious recollection of specific events and facts. It's the kind of thing that you can remember because you intentionally think about a particular episode from your past, whether it was yesterday or last year, and then you can recall it in detail.
Explicit memory is also referred to as declarative knowledge, which means it involves factual information rather than procedural knowledge (i.e knowing how to do something). This could be remembering your partner's birthday, when you first heard a David Bowie track, or recalling a whirlwind holiday romance.
When was explicit memory discovered?
The concept of explicit memory was first proposed by Endel Tulving in 1972. He suggested that there were two types of memory:
Episodic memory is the ability to remember specific events, episodes and experiences from your own life.
Semantic memory is about facts and knowledge about the world around us; these are general facts rather than personal recollections.
Tulving proposed that episodic and semantic memory relied on different brain systems—suggesting that the two types of memory were distinct from each other, and could be selectively impaired by damage to different areas in the brain.
How do the two types of explicit memory differ?
Episodic memory is the ability to recall specific events from your past. For example, you might remember what happened at a party last weekend, who was there and what you did. Or maybe you can recall the first time you fell off your bike as a child. Episodic memories may be stored in different parts of the brain depending on their content (e.g., visual vs auditory) but they all have one thing in common—they’re based on actual events that happened in our lives.
Semantic memory refers to general knowledge that applies across many situations (such as knowing how dogs are different from cats). It’s also sometimes referred to as “declarative” or “propositional” knowledge because it can be articulated verbally (i.e., “dogs bark while cats meow”). We use semantic memories every day when we talk about what we do or where we live; these conversations rely upon our ability to access this type of information quickly and easily without having to think about it too much.
Where is the explicit memory?
The hippocampus is the brain’s main hub for explicit memory. The hippocampus is located in the medial temporal lobe and processes information from other parts of the brain like sensory input and emotional associations. When you suddenly remember where you put your keys, it's in part because of this part of your brain.
The hippocampus isn't the only place where explicit memories are stored though—they're also found elsewhere around your brain, including areas known as parahippocampal gyrus and perirhinal cortex.
How does your brain make explicit memories?
Implicit memory is more like a muscle than an explicit mental process. It’s the kind of thing that you don’t have to think about because it just happens. It's how your brain can help you learn new skills and behaviours without having to be conscious about the learning process itself. For example, when you first learned to ride a bike, you weren't thinking about peddling or steering—your brain did those things for you.
Your brain was able to learn new information and behaviours because of implicit memory. It’s also the reason why you probably don't remember every single detail from when you learned how to ride a bike—your brain stored those memories in an implicit way so that it could access them later.
Implicit vs explicit memory
Explicit memory is, by definition, explicit. It's the kind of memory that you have access to, and can think about at will. It's what you use to remember your name or the date of your first piano recital, for example.
Implicit memory is unconscious and unintentional; it's how we learn skills like riding a bike or typing. You don't have to think about these things in order to do them—you just do them automatically thanks (mostly) to implicit memory.
How can you improve your explicit memory?
If you find your memory is lacking, there are a few things you can do to improve it. The key is to practice, practice and practice. If you want to remember a poem or speech, try using mnemonic devices—like imagery or association—to help you remember the information better. You can also use repetition, chunking and interleaving as effective memory strategies when trying to learn something new. To improve retrieval of long term memories (explicit), use retrieval practice.
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