Implicit And Explicit Memories Of Childhood Trauma. What’s The Difference?

implicit and explicit memories of childhood trauma

One way of describing memory (amongst many others) is to divide the way in which it processes and stores information into two distinct categories; these being :




I explain the difference between these to types of memory below:

The Difference Between Explicit And Implicit Memory :

Explicit and implicit memory are two types of long-term memory so, first, it might be useful, very briefly, to explain what is meant by long-term memory:

Essentially, long-term memories are those memories we store which are not currently in our conscious minds, but which we can easily access. For example, if you were asked the capital of France, you could bring to mind ‘Paris’. You weren’t thinking of Paris before you read ‘capital of France‘ as it was being stored below the level of conscious awareness (like just about all the information you currently hold in your head) but you were easily able to bring it to conscious awareness (i.e. to retrieve it from long-term memory and temporarily back into short-term memory)  and answer the question.


For those that are interested –  if not, skip to next paragraphshort-term memory contains information currently held in consciousness awareness; for example, if someone read out the digits 4,7,2,8,9 just once and asked you to repeat them back you would be able to do so by holding them in conscious awareness or short-term memory.

 If you wanted to transfer them to long-term memory, you could repeat them a few times until they were stored below the level of conscious awareness, not think about them for a day, then retrieve them from long-term memory and, temporarily, back into conscious awareness (i.e. back into short-term memory) when called upon to do so.

(The average person can store seven digits in short-term memory, so if read 10 random digits and asked to repeat them back, most people would be able to do so; however, for, say, 5 digits, most people would be able to repeat them back).

Implicit Memory :

Implicit memory refers to unconscious memory which does not require detailed, conscious, explicit recall. As an example, I will describe a case study I first learned about as a first year psychology undergraduate:

An Illustration Of Implicit Memory : The Extraordinary Case Of H.M. – or The Man With ‘No Memory’.

The psychologist, Penfield, had a patient (usually referred to in the psychological literature only as H.M., but whose actual name was Henry Molaison) who underwent brain surgery for epilepsy. Whilst the epilepsy was significantly alleviated, the surgery had a tragic side-effect : H.M.’s memory was devastatingly affected and he could no longer store new memories for more than a few minutes.

However, intriguingly, it was found he could store new information on an unconscious level. To demonstrate this, when Penfield met with him for a consultation one day, he secreted in his hand a drawing pin so that when H.M. shook hands with him in greeting, he (H.M.)received a painful prick from the drawing pin on his hand. However, because of his damaged memory, he later had no conscious memory of this event.

But, here’s the really intriguing part:

A week or so later, at their next consultation, Penfield, as usual, offered his hand to H.M. to shake. This time, H.M. expressed great reluctance to do so (even though, as I’ve said, he had no conscious memory of the drawing pin incident). So, the key question is, why was he reluctant to shake hands? Well, the answer is that it was because H.M. had an unconscious, or IMPLICIT, memory of painful incident. This led him to be unwilling to shake hands, yet unable to explain, nor understand, from whence this unwillingness arose.

Explicit Memory :

This type of memory operates according to conscious, deliberate intentions and can be split into two further subcategories, namely episodic and semantic memory. I differentiate between these two subcategories below:

  •    episodic memory – this type of memory (sometimes also referred to as biographical memory) relates to one’s personal experiences (e.g. what one did yesterday).


  •    semantic memory – this type of memory relates to factual information (e.g. that a dog has four legs) and concepts (e.g. that gravity causes objects to fall to the ground).


Implicit Memory And Childhood Trauma:

Whilst H.M. lost his conscious memory as a result of his surgery, those who suffer severe childhood trauma may also have no conscious memory of certain traumatic events, or periods, that occurred in their early lives. Two main reasons for this are :

1) The traumatic event/period occurred too early in life (i.e. in babyhood or infancy) to form long-term, conscious, explicit memories.

2) The traumatic event/period was so severe that, as a psychological defense, it has been unconsciously repressed.

In both of the above two cases, however, it is likely that implicit memories of the traumatic event/period will remain. Again, an example is probably useful here:

A new boss makes a very minor criticism of John’s work. John reacts with objectively disproportionate concern and starts to worry he’ll be sacked and thrown out of the organization for which he works as, on an unconscious level, the new boss’s tone of voice triggered in John’s mind the implicit memory of his father’s (who used to criticize him relentlessly and eventually threw him out of the family home when he was sixteen) manner of speech.


Just because we may not be able to consciously recall aspects of our childhood trauma, we may well retain an implicit memory of these aspects. These implicit memories may cause us to behave in certain, seemingly inexplicable, ways that appear, superficially, to be non-sequiturs, due to the true causes remaining hidden from us and outside of our conscious awareness.

Resources :

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


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