Implicit and Explicit Memories in EMDR Therapy


Implicit Memories


An implicit memory is something that is recalled unconsciously, without any intention. An implicit memory is often a procedural memory, meaning it’s a remembered process, such as riding a bike or learning how to walk.


Implicit memories are usually not memories that you can remember verbally. Think about it - when you stand up and walk every day, are you consciously remembering the time you took your first steps when you were a baby? Or do you just get up and start moving?


Implicit memories are habits that do not require conscious thought.


One way that implicit memory relates to childhood trauma is when a baby experiences an unmet Attachment Cry. This is a form of developmental trauma, in which a baby's cries for help where not responded to on a consistent basis. Once that baby grows into adulthood, they can be labeled as "attention-seeking" or be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.


That "attention-seeking" behavior is an implicit memory - an action that was learned through repetition, but is remembered automatically and without intention.


Explicit Memories

Explicit memories, on the other hand, are memories that you either consciously choose to recall OR that come into your awareness through association (without intention).


For example, you may choose to think about the time you went on vacation with your family when feeling nostagic. Or you the smell of cookies may remind you of a time you would bake cookies with your Grandma.


Explicit Memories can be broken down into two types of memories: Episodic Memory and Semantic Memory.


Episodic Memory

Episodic memories are typically memories that relate to your own personal experiences. Think of this type of memory as an "episode" in your brain. These types of memories can include remembering when your child was born, the day you got married, your first day of school, etc.


An episodic memory is NOT always "accurate". Two people can have two different episodic memories of the same event. This is because episodic memories are based on perception and associated emotions.


Semantic memory

Semantic memory are memories that are like "facts" in our brains that we have learned, but don't relate to our own personal lives much. An example of this would be remembering that the sky is blue or the grass is green.


Which memories does EMDR work with?


EMDR works on implicit memories and episodic memories.


During Phase 1 of EMDR Therapy, triggers are explored. This is because by making note of the trigger, the therapist can help guide you to which memory or memories may be associated with that trigger.


Remember that cookie example from before? Well, in this case, the smell of cookies is the trigger and the associated memory is the time with your Grandma.


A trauma example is the sound of a car backfiring, which may bring up images, emotions or behaviors that a veteran experienced. The trigger leads to a flashback of an unprocessed episodic memory.


An example trigger for an unprocessed implicit memory could be an adult getting into an argument with their partner. That argument may trigger feelings of abandonment and behaviors that were protective (i.e., "I'll do anything so you don't leave me" or pulling away and becoming emotionally shutdown).


Having an understanding of the types of memories you're working with in EMDR Therapy can help you determine your approach in your treatment plan. The Standard Protocol can be so helpful with episodic memories. Implicit memories can also be treated with EMDR Therapy, but I would always recommend taking advanced trainings on this, since it is more complex.

Need more help with your EMDR treatment planning?


My EMDR Treatment Planning Templates are designed to help you stay organized so you know where to start with your complex clients. These worksheets will help keep your treatment plan clean & focused so you have a solid sense of direction in your work as an EMDR Therapist.


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About the Author

Dana Carretta-Stein is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and founder of Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling, PLLC, a trauma-informed private practice in Scarsdale, NY.


She is an expert on EMDR Therapy and uses EMDR regularly in her practice. She is an EMDRIA Consultant-in-Training and provides individual and group consultation to EMDR Therapists who are seeking guidance and professional development in their own work with EMDR Therapy.