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Explicit and Implicit Memory: Intuition Training Basics

How to retrain your intuition.

This post is in response to
Intuition Rules: Why therapists rarely say "Just pull yourself together!"

In my last article I argued that intuition is powerful but not always right. We try to override intuition with will power, saying things like "from now on I won't be irritated with you." A better bet is to retrain intuition. In this article I'll talk about what's involved in retraining it.

Intuition is the product of trial and error in the school of hard knocks--eons of biological evolution, centuries of cultural evolution, and decades of personal learning from direct and vicarious experience. Intuition is the name we give our biological, cultural and personal (sometimes called biopsychosocial) memory, memories that compel our spontaneous behavior and choices.

We can't change biological memory, but the evolutionary psychologists who imply therefore that the behaviors that result from it are "hardwired" are wrong, because cultural and personal memory shapes intuition too.

It's hard to change culture, as diverse political and religious factions will attest. We can change culture's influence on us by moving to a different culture but there will still be memories of past exposure when we were young and impressionable. Still, the psychoanalysts who imply therefore that the behaviors that result from childhood exposure to weird cultures (including our families) are "hardwired" are wrong too, because personal memory shapes intuition also.

Shaping personal memory is where the actions is at. It's where we make new intuitions, in effect turning "softwired" innovations into "hardwired" habits.

Memory experts distinguish many kinds of memory. There's still debate about kinds, but two that are proving real are called implicit and explicit memory. Implicit memory is also called "know-how," or procedural memory. It's basically second nature, or learned intuition. Explicit memory goes by the names "know-that" or declarative memory.

Driving a car takes know-how. It's second nature, an almost mindless act. Remembering facts is "know-that" and is not quite so effortless. The two kinds of memory are related in interesting ways that bear on how we train intuition.

What did you have for dinner on Halloween night two years ago? If you can answer that question, it's because the menu resides in your explicit memory. It's memory that doesn't flow out instantly like know-how or second nature, but with some deliberation can nonetheless be retrieved and declared. I "know that" I had tofu fake meat on burritos and Skittles.

I memorize poetry and lyrics, and in the process watch my know-that turn into know-how by a laborious process of repetition. Repetition builds habits, sequences of reliable associations like the beaten path taken most at a fork in a woodland trail. The alternative paths are overgrown so you wouldn't think of taking them. Through repeating a poem, always taking the right word-paths at the choice points, the right choices become obvious, in effect, xxxno brainers meaning they don't really take any thinking at all.

Through repetition, an explicit memory of what line comes next in a poem becomes an implicit memory or second nature. When I've learned a lyric, all I have to remember is how the lyric begins and rest falls out like running downhill on well-beaten paths, never pausing to wonder which fork to take.

I know what I had for dinner on Halloween of 2008, but I haven't rehearsed the menu. Instead I can work my way back to it link by link. That was the year I bought my John Travolta Saturday Night Fever costume which I remember wearing when I taught that afternoon which reminds me that I cycled home after, and, ah! I carved a scary Dick Cheney pumpkin that week, which reminds me of the tofu-Skittles dinner.

"Memory is like baggage," I tell students. "You only carry what is light or has good handles." Know-how is light. You've repeated the task so often the habit requires no thinking. Know-that has handles that allow you to link one idea to another until you remember Halloween 2008.

The links I used to remember the tofu-meat were word-based. I retraced with words and really couldn't have done so otherwise, which is why camels are unlikely to remember what they had for dinner even last week. Words give humans unprecedented access to know-that.

And what are words? Know-how or know-that? It depends. New words are know-that until you've used them long enough that your fluent.

I speed listen to books and lectures. It's the only way I can keep up with my broad interests. I can listen at up to triple-speed (with MP3s there's no pitch change) but not when I'm listening to material with a lot of unfamiliar jargon. If I'm listening to quantum physics I have to slow it down to normal speed. That's because physics prose is speckled with terms that are still know-thatxxx. New jargon, like a Halloween dinner, takes time to remember. But once I've steeped myself in new jargon repeatedly enough it becomes as fluent as other words.

Fluency is the key, and it's worth noting that fluency is as much about the paths not taken as the beaten paths. If in memorizing lyrics I get a line wrong often enough, I'll tend to repeat the error, or at least stall out at the fork.

I'm off to play jazz in a cafe in an hour. I might sing "All of me" but I doubt it. Though it's a simple tune it isn't simple for me because I've repeated the lyric wrong too often and now I'm confused. Take my lips I want to lose them; take my arms, I'll never use them." I often screw that part up. I'll never use my lips" "I want to use them." "I'll never lose them." I stall at those lines, taping into explicit memory when I should be flowing musically on second nature. The wrong paths through the lyrics aren't overgrown enough so I can end up lost in the weeds.

How does this apply to retraining intuition? A pledge to "stop feeling angry" or to "be appreciative from now on," is like know-that, not know-how. It's like admitting that you think you should be different. Your intuition's response will be something like FDR's when a pressure group met with him. "OK you've convinced me. Now go out and put pressure on me." The pressure has to be persistently convincing, the repetitive presentation of either new data, or new interpretations of that data. Turning know-that into second nature requires unambiguous repetition of an alternative path, and the path has to pay off reliably for memory to finally succumb to it. You can't make it second nature to feel just any old way. Intuition is memory driven, and natural fast-acting intuition is implicit memory in particular.

I have another article on this subject coming up, which has to do with the challenge of gaining new know-how for improvisation. With "All of me" the lyrics should always go the same way. With jazz in general though, there isn't a simple, single one-way formula. In many areas of life we have to improvise. So how do we gain improvisational know-how? If savvy can't be taught by rote memorization, how can we make it second nature?