How our implicit memory affects decision making

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  • on January 20th, 2010

Implicit memory is comprised of unconscious emotional patterns of relating to ourselves and others. It’s the kind of memory you access without thinking. It’s what makes you feel characteristically you.

These are the types of behavioural patterns laid down implicitly in the brain:

How do you feel about yourself?

Are you good at self-care? Do you accept all aspects of your personality? Or do you tend to deny yourself, or verbally beat yourself up?

How are you with others?

Do you naturally gravitate towards others and enjoy their company? Or do you prefer being on your own?

Implicit memory guides our behavior automatically, without thought or effort. You can think of implicit memory as a set of instructions or procedures encoded in the brain. However, a procedure can’t easily be described in words or contained in images. These procedures are nonconscious and nonverbal.

Implicit memory starts early

For the first 18 months of our lives the implicit memory system is online establishing the basis of our character. Explicit memory, the kind of memory we can consciously recall (“I remember the time when I….”), doesn’t come fully online until much later.

After an infant learns to identify her mother’s face, voice, touch and smell, she learns how to communicate her needs to this “person”, all based on trial and error. Successes and failures are recorded, with particular attention given to memories of interactions with caregivers, and gradually a patterned and predictable way of responding to the world evolves.

This kind of memory is necessarily implicit because the newborn has no conceptual or verbal ability and must depend on its inborn capacity to learn what it needs quickly and nonconsciously, in an environment where survival itself depends on emotional connection.

Implicit memory is procedural. This means implicit memory is difficult to change. For instance, you just can’t tell yourself, “Don’t be stubborn” and hope this will change you permanently. This is like the left brain telling the right brain what to do. It is not going to happen this way. This is not how our brain works. It takes hundreds of hours of deliberate practice and constant repetition to turn a desired behavior into a habit.

Procedural memory is the basis for our character.

The procedural memory system stores the instructions for our habitual responses. In other words it patterns how we do things. More profoundly, it is about who we are.1

In other words, procedural memory is the basis of our character, those aspects of ourselves that make us unique.

When we learn a behaviour or an emotional response it becomes part of our procedural memory. Once it’s been “programmed” into the procedural memory system we don’t need to decide how to respond to a specific situation because it has now become automatic–after all, that’s the whole point.

You see these “overlearned” patterns are the “behind the scenes” kind of memory that frees up our attention for more important tasks.

For instance, I can drive my car and carry on a conversation at the same time. The ‘driving’ behaviour is encoded in procedural memory. Since I’ve overlearned the skills needed for driving I don’t need to be conscious of every detail in order to keep my car on the road.

When procedural memory kicks in, it’s like being “on autopilot”.

Procedural memory is important in counseling because many of our emotions and behaviours that accompany them occur ‘automatically’. In order to change a behaviour we need to bring it into conscious awareness and ‘out of procedure’.

Procedures take a while to learn but they make life a lot easier. Can you imagine for instance if we had to sound out every letter of every word in order to read? Reading becomes a procedural skill.

An important feature of procedural memory is that it tends to persist; it’s resistant to change. This is a good thing because you don’t want to have to keep re-learning behaviours. But this also means that you can’t change a procedure, unless and until you pay attention to how and when it operates. And procedural patterns take a while to unlearn.

Let’s say you like to play tennis; you were self-taught and have played for years. You decide to take some lessons. The instructor shows you how to swing the racquet more effectively.

But you soon discover that you just can’t just tell yourself to swing it differently. The old pathways interfere with the new ones. It’s hard to interrupt a well-established procedure.

In fact, those original neural pathways, though weakened, will always be there, for we currently have no reason to think that they will deteriorate. Under conditions resembling the initial circumstances in which they were laid down they may even be reactivated!

But the good news is that the new, regulated pathways will eventually override the old ones.

Once you unconsciously trigger a procedure, which could be any routine task, it’s difficult to stop yourself from completing it. That is, it’s difficult to interrupt the procedure.

Want to know why you repeat the same pattern in relationships even though these strategies clearly don’t work? You’re not alone. Benjamin Franklin once observed that “the definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

Once you understand how procedural memory works you’ll have a better handle on why you repeat ineffective, even self-defeating, behaviours.

Once a procedure is initiated it acquires a forward momentum that is uncomfortable to stop. This is the source of the desire to continue the procedure. Procedural memory dances with our cortex which can always come up with a “rational” explanation or justification for our automatic behaviors.

It takes many repetitions of a behaviour or an emotional response before it’s ingrained, and once that procedure is established it’s difficult to change.

For the same reason, we can’t change our way of relating (i.e. implicit memory) simply by telling ourselves to feel differently. It requires special conditions for the change to occur.

The information in this blog post represents my own opinions and does not contain a recommendation for any particular security or investment. I or my affiliates may hold positions or other interests in securities mentioned in the Blog, please see my Disclaimer page for my full disclaimer.

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