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A type of memory called “implicit memory” dictates how we interpret reality. The neural “wiring” of this type of memory in the brain dictates how effective and efficient we are in everything we do.
Implicit memory is where we encode rules, skills, values, habits and everything else that defines who we are. To change a skill or a habit we must deliberately engage implicit memory.
Without engaging implicit memory people gain knowledge about the needed change but are unable to translate that knowledge into practice in a lasting way.
Without the knowledge to engage implicit memory, managers and other change facilitators have to depend solely on intuition to facilitate growth. When trying to get someone else to adopt change, managers often meet high resistance. They have to devote great attention to sustain the change and find results typically inconsistent or short lived.
It is through physical changes in the synaptic activity of implicit memory in the brain, that we can improve the mastery of many specific skills such as sales, communication, conflict resolution, customer service, problem solving, innovation and project management.
Memory to most people is the ability to consciously recollect what happened in the past. But this type of memory, called explicit memory, is only one of two types of memory that shape the way we operate.
Implicit memory, a second type of memory, is the foundation of who we are.
A shift from being reactive to being proactive requires a change in implicit memory structures. Becoming more accountable and taking more responsibility leads to changes in implicit memory. Each time we seek to improve in a lasting way, we need to create new “pathways” in our implicit memory to represent the change.
When organizations, teams and individuals try to adopt a new set of values, habits or skills to better deal with team dynamics or improve their time management or sales skills, implicit memory must be involved.
Each time a step is taken in the direction of change, we make daily choices that either reinforce an old way of doing things or a new way of doing things.
The old ways of doing things start off as dominant. When organizations go through a merger and their teams have an old habit of resisting change, the dominant response will be resistance. We can talk to teams about being accepting and flexible, but it is what they practice that dictates what is being reinforced.
If we try to guide teams undergoing a change to be less resistant their brain will activate two paths simultaneously: the old one and the new one. Because the “old one” is more dominant, unless new habits are being integrated into practice and experience through proper support, the old habits of resistance will quickly regain control.
To make change last we must construct new implicit memory imprints that will successfully compete with the old ways. Implicit memory is the foundation that dictates change: If we “fight” implicit memory with explicit memory tools, implicit memory will always “win” in the long run and desired change will have only short term results.
According to research in neuroscience, these two types of memory, the implicit and the explicit, operate differently and lead to different results. While explicit memory leads to the retention of knowledge implicit memory leads to the acquisition of habits and skills.
Explicit knowledge can be stored through lectures, books, online presentations etc. It will lead to conscious awareness and storage, not to change.
Studies show that engaging explicit memory with the intent of delivering change will at best lead to lasting change in 10% of cases. This means that in any given change process, if the process engages explicit memory, the investment in change will lead to desired results in 10% or less of the individuals involved.
It is estimated that the 10% that can “translate” explicit communication into change are doing so by applying a process called Cortical Consolidation, a process by which the brain of some can “translate” explicit memory into implicit memory without further training or guidance. In the other 90% of cases, engaging explicit memory stays in explicit memory and hence does not lead to desired results.
Because explicit memory can sustain change through awareness it can lead to short term desired results. As long as a team or an individual sustains the awareness, the new skill will be present. As soon as a distraction comes along, old habits will return to rule. Explicit memory is not the right platform for teams and individuals to adopt a new default response.
We have all met teams and individuals who decide to start a new regiment, committing to perform a new task during meetings: "from now on we will..." In the meeting individuals promise that the old ways will be in the past but in reality the old ways reemerge a few weeks later to the defeat of the new.
If you are in a communication workshop that is designed to engage explicit memory, learning to be empathic, for example, you may as a result know that you are supposed to be alert to emotional cues or that you are supposed to repeat back your understanding of what has been said but you are unlikely to change your behavior as a result.
A few days after the workshop when an opportunity presents itself to try the new skill, there is a 90% likelihood you'll go back to your old way of listening. This is simply because knowledge doesn’t replace habits.
Studies in Alzheimer’s patients and amnesia patients shed light on the nature and functionality of implicit memory.
In Alzheimer studies, while patients cannot recall details from their past, they can still perform many daily tasks with the same level of mastery they did before they were affected by the disease (like playing an instrument for example).
These studies prove that even when explicit memory is damaged and we cannot consciously retrieve knowledge, a deeper memory type is active, retaining our skills and habits without us being aware of it.
Implicit memory dictates our skill sets and habits even when we don’t remember creating them. Those skills and habits form an “invisible” set of rules and a loop is created: every time we practice the skills or the habits we further reinforce the strength of the rules and hence we are more likely to retain those habits and repeat them next time the opportunity presents itself.
Research shows that implicit memory isn’t stored in one region of the brain but instead in the neural-synaptic activity throughout the brain.
Unlike any other cells in the human body, brain cells (or neurons) directly communicate with one another through synaptic connections. Each time we think, feel or act, a neural-synaptic pathway in the brain is activated.
Additional studies in amnesia patients shed further light on the special features of the implicit memory system. Studies show that amnesia patients can learn to perform some tasks that depended on priming (prior learning). The more times amnesia patients do certain tasks the better they get at doing them despite the fact they cannot remember any of the previous times they performed the task.
These studies show that implicit memory can create new “rules,” even without the retention of the knowledge associated with these rules by explicit memory.
An implicit “memory,” a single rule if you will, is represented in the brain as a synaptic pathway. When individuals and teams are in the habit of joking around in response to a stressor, or jumping into action before thinking the solution through, that response is represented in the brain as a chain of neurons firing through their synaptic connections. Each time the team responds in the same way, the synaptic pathway is reinforced, further strengthening the likelihood the team will choose the same response next time it is presented with a similar situation.
If the team is encouraged to change through explicit memory, very little if any attitude or behavioral change can be expected.
Our implicit memory, through experience, adjusts throughout life. The brain undergoes a process of adjustment as a result of experience.
Experience alone isn’t enough. A manager may repeatedly instruct a team member to perform a task, the team member may perform the task as instructed, and still, after many repetitions, the employee may not acquire the new habit or skill.
What is it that makes experience translate into an acquisition of a new value, habit or skill?
It is the very process the brain undergoes to create a new synaptic connection that we are after.
In his book Synaptic Self, Joseph LeDoux, a Professor of Science at the New York University’s Center of Neural Science reviews the issue of plasticity, our brain’s ability to change. LeDoux discusses many resources for the plasticity phenomenon to present the conclusion that our brain is “assembled” during childhood but that our synaptic connections have the ability to change throughout our lives.
At an early age, genes dictate that our brain is a human one and that our synaptic connections, though more similar to those of our species and even more similar to members of our family, are nevertheless distinct.
Then through experiences, our synaptic connections are adjusted, further distinguishing us from other individuals. Our synaptic connections develop on an ongoing basis.
The synaptic pathways in our brain have the plasticity to change throughout our lives as we develop. “Although the extensive plasticity that is present in early life eventually stops, our synapses do not stop changing, but remain subtly changeable by experience.” Joseph LeDoux, 2002
Eric Kandel (recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons) found that when neurons fire repeatedly, new proteins are synthesized which allows for new neural synaptic connections to be created.
While new synaptic connections can be created and reinforced, the way in which those connections are created has unique, specific requirements. Implicit memories that can lead to long term effective change are created as the brain follows certain steps.
Following the steps means acquiring a new, effective default process, with low-resistance, and in a lasting way in a matter of weeks.
Implicit memory “prefers” totally different and sometimes contradicting ways of encoding to the way explicit memory does.
For example, research shows that explicit learning is more effective when information is incorporated gradually through interleaved learning rather than if rapid learning is used (McClelland et al. 1995). This means that for explicit memory it is better and faster if the connection between facts is layered in its presentation:
Implicit memory on the other hand “learns” much faster by association, linking stories, common themes and patterns.
Another example is explicit memory benefits from repetition of the same sequence.
If, for example, you are trying to explicitly “memorize” a list of groceries, it is more efficient if you repeat the same sequence over and over again in the exact same order, instead of mixing up the sequence every time you run through it.
Furthermore, research shows that for optimal explicit retrieval it best to approximate the conditions of the “storage” to the conditions that will be present during retrieval. In other words the more similar the cues the easier it is for explicit memory to “remember.”
Implicit memory, on the other hand “prefers” variation. “Science has shown that the brain makes generalizations from repeated experiences. These generalizations become a part of implicit memory, and are thought to be created in the patterns of neural firing…of vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell that accumulate in repeated interactions.” Daniel Siegel, MD, Center for Culture, Brain and Development UCSD, 2004
There are several other key principles to engaging implicit memory, all of which lead to the same result: engaging implicit memory and guiding the brain to follow the sequence so new skills, habits or values are acquired in a lasting way.
©KeyChange Institute 2010. www.KeyChangeNow.com
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About the Author
President and thought leader of KeyChange Institute (www.KeyChangeNow.com). Key Change Institute is a national organization that provides gr
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