Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast explicit and implicit memory, identifying the features that define each.Explain the function and duration of eidetic and echoic memories.Summarize the capacities of short-term memory and explain how working memory is used to process information in it.

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As you can see in Table 9.1, “Memory Conceptualized in Terms of Types, Stages, and Processes,” psychologists conceptualize memory in terms of types, in terms of stages, and in terms of processes. In this section we will consider the two types of memory, explicit memory and implicit memory, and then the three major memory stages: sensory, short-term, and long-term (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968). Then, in the next section, we will consider the nature of long-term memory, with a particular emphasis on the cognitive techniques we can use to improve our memories. Our discussion will focus on the three processes that are central to long-term memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval.

Table 9.1 Memory Conceptualized in Terms of Types, Stages, and Processes.
As typesExplicit memoryImplicit memory
As stagesSensory memoryShort-term memoryLong-term memory
As processesEncodingStorageRetrieval

Explicit Memory

When we assess memory by asking a person to consciously remember things, we are measuring explicit memory. Explicit memory refers to knowledge or experiences that can be consciously remembered. As you can see in Figure 9.2, “Types of Memory,” there are two types of explicit memory: episodic and semantic. Episodic memory refers to the firsthand experiences that we have had (e.g., recollections of our high school graduation day or of the fantastic dinner we had in New York last year). Semantic memory refers to our knowledge of facts and concepts about the world (e.g., that the absolute value of −90 is greater than the absolute value of 9 and that one definition of the word “affect” is “the experience of feeling or emotion”).

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Figure 9.2 Types of Memory.

Explicit memory is assessed using measures in which the individual being tested must consciously attempt to remember the information. A recall memory test is a measure of explicit memory that involves bringing from memory information that has previously been remembered. We rely on our recall memory when we take an essay test, because the test requires us to generate previously remembered information. A multiple-choice test is an example of a recognition memory test, a measure of explicit memory that involves determining whether information has been seen or learned before.

Your own experiences taking tests will probably lead you to agree with the scientific research finding that recall is more difficult than recognition. Recall, such as required on essay tests, involves two steps: first generating an answer and then determining whether it seems to be the correct one. Recognition, as on multiple-choice test, only involves determining which item from a list seems most correct (Haist, Shimamura, & Squire, 1992). Although they involve different processes, recall and recognition memory measures tend to be correlated. Students who do better on a multiple-choice exam will also, by and large, do better on an essay exam (Bridgeman & Morgan, 1996).

A third way of measuring memory is known as relearning (Nelson, 1985). Measures of relearning (or savings) assess how much more quickly information is processed or learned when it is studied again after it has already been learned but then forgotten. If you have taken some French courses in the past, for instance, you might have forgotten most of the vocabulary you learned. But if you were to work on your French again, you’d learn the vocabulary much faster the second time around. Relearning can be a more sensitive measure of memory than either recall or recognition because it allows assessing memory in terms of “how much” or “how fast” rather than simply “correct” versus “incorrect” responses. Relearning also allows us to measure memory for procedures like driving a car or playing a piano piece, as well as memory for facts and figures.

Implicit Memory

While explicit memory consists of the things that we can consciously report that we know, implicit memory refers to knowledge that we cannot consciously access. However, implicit memory is nevertheless exceedingly important to us because it has a direct effect on our behaviour. Implicit memory refers to the influence of experience on behaviour, even if the individual is not aware of those influences. As you can see in Figure 9.2, “Types of Memory,” there are three general types of implicit memory: procedural memory, classical conditioning effects, and priming.

Procedural memory refers to our often unexplainable knowledge of how to do things. When we walk from one place to another, speak to another person in English, dial a cell phone, or play a video game, we are using procedural memory. Procedural memory allows us to perform complex tasks, even though we may not be able to explain to others how we do them. There is no way to tell someone how to ride a bicycle; a person has to learn by doing it. The idea of implicit memory helps explain how infants are able to learn. The ability to crawl, walk, and talk are procedures, and these skills are easily and efficiently developed while we are children despite the fact that as adults we have no conscious memory of having learned them.

A second type of implicit memory is classical conditioning effects, in which we learn, often without effort or awareness, to associate neutral stimuli (such as a sound or a light) with another stimulus (such as food), which creates a naturally occurring response, such as enjoyment or salivation. The memory for the association is demonstrated when the conditioned stimulus (the sound) begins to create the same response as the unconditioned stimulus (the food) did before the learning.

The final type of implicit memory is known as priming, or changes in behaviour as a result of experiences that have happened frequently or recently. Priming refers both to the activation of knowledge (e.g., we can prime the concept of kindness by presenting people with words related to kindness) and to the influence of that activation on behaviour (people who are primed with the concept of kindness may act more kindly).

One measure of the influence of priming on implicit memory is the word fragment test, in which a person is asked to fill in missing letters to make words. You can try this yourself: First, try to complete the following word fragments, but work on each one for only three or four seconds. Do any words pop into mind quickly?

_ i b _ a _ y

_ h _ s _ _ i _ n

_ o _ k

_ h _ i s _

Now read the following sentence carefully:

“He got his materials from the shelves, checked them out, and then left the building.”

Then try again to make words out of the word fragments.

I think you might find that it is easier to complete fragments 1 and 3 as “library” and “book,” respectively, after you read the sentence than it was before you read it. However, reading the sentence didn’t really help you to complete fragments 2 and 4 as “physician” and “chaise.” This difference in implicit memory probably occurred because as you read the sentence, the concept of “library” (and perhaps “book”) was primed, even though they were never mentioned explicitly. Once a concept is primed it influences our behaviours, for instance, on word fragment tests.

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Our everyday behaviours are influenced by priming in a wide variety of situations. Seeing an advertisement for cigarettes may make us start smoking, seeing the flag of our home country may arouse our patriotism, and seeing a student from a rival school may arouse our competitive spirit. And these influences on our behaviours may occur without our being aware of them.