Attention! Rat study improves understanding of memory

Aaaaaawwwww. Not. Pic by Web design company Worthing


Barefoot, no glasses, still a bit wet from the shower and holding my towel up with one hand, I stepped into our hall. From there it was a reasonably short dash to the bedroom but, between me and my goal was one of the ugliest, fattest looking rats ever spawned.

I froze, partly because it was freezing cold and I was still wet and wearing only a towel, but also because I had no shoes and didn’t fancy some bubonic plague with my rat bite so figured standing still was a sensible short term survival strategy. But I needed an answer.

The plot

I’d been digging the garden the night before and the spade was near the front door. If only I could get past the rat, outside the door, get the spade, get back inside the door, turn elegantly and then wallop the rodent with my spade, one-handed, I’d be sweet. My other hand was on the towel and had to stay there, especially as my plan involved the outdoors in a suburban environment.

I slipped past in a swerve any wide receiver would envy, snatched said spade, pirouetted awesomely – towel perfectly in place – executed a lightning fast cost-benefit analysis of flattening vs chopping, opted to chop, lifted my trusty weapon and went to bisect the rat.

As I was in the chopping arc, I noted, curiously, that the rat hadn’t moved, ignored this blindingly useful piece of information, and continued the newly devised stationary rat spade chop manoeuver.

Abort! Abort!

It was only when I had bent down far enough to actually eyeball the despicable vermin without the aid of my glasses, that I realized I needed to change strategies. The technique was right for the strategy and was being executed flawlessly, but the strategy was suddenly all wrong. I was in imminent and serious danger of chopping my shoe in half.

Priming and memory

This is a great example of what psychologists call priming. My optometrist calls it short-sightedness but she’s never been so up close and personal with a rat. Priming simply means that we are more likely to be sensitive to, or aware of, something because we’ve already been exposed to it. In this case, our cat had brought in a rat a few days before and left it in the hall for us. Now, confronted by a similar scenario, my brain swiftly reached its conclusion.

The information was ambiguous because I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so my brain had to interpret the information it was getting and make a decision. My shoe, left in the hall, was brown and the shoelace trailed away behind it like a tail. Given that, and the recent rat experience in the same hall, for my brain, it was a rat.

Priming works both ways, in that it can make us more likely or faster to respond in a certain way (let’s call that Positive Priming), or less likely and slower to respond to something (Negative Priming). Ignoring something, or actively not paying attention to it, costs us in mental resources (it’s an effort after all) and it also means that our ability to process that same thing is hindered for a little while afterwards.

There are some interesting spin offs from priming work, such as advertising and marketing, persuasion, decision making and so on, but what priming highlights is the difference between two forms of long term memory. We call them implicit memory and explicit memory.

The essential difference between the two is one of conscious remembering or recollection.


Implicit memory is outside conscious remembering – I was unaware of the connections my brain made to get to “rat” – and helps us with how to do things. It’s very definitely “how”memory. When you “never forget how to ride a bike” you can thank implicit memory. And in fact how to do a bunch of stuff, from the simple walking we take for granted, to catching and throwing, playing games, and on to highly skilled sports or technical know how.

Next time someone asks you “Have you seen the keys” and you can say “sure, they’re on the table” you’ve exercised implicit memory. You didn’t actually stop, register them, actively and consciously  attend to their location, consolidate the memory and then actively try to retrieve the memory. No. You just remembered.


Explicit memory needs conscious thought, and it’s what we usually think of when we hear people talk about memory. It works well with associations, by which I mean linking things together, and generally falls into two types. It has to do with experiences (the video clips of our lives) and stuff. Knowing why your shoes stick to the floor on hot days = stuff. Remembering nearly chopping my shoe in half = experiences.

So here’s the take home bit

Implicit memory seems to impact us more in day-to-day life than explicit, by affecting the decisions we make. What’s unnerving about this is that with implicit memory being outside conscious thought, we’re often not aware of all the factors affecting our decisions.

Next time you’re at the supermarket, ask yourself why you buy this over that. Ignore the reasons you’ll come up with like price and quality, because those reasons often come later. Think about the influences on your decision that are already there. The brand promotion, the billboard, the conversation with your neighbor, the color, the smell…

See what you get.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Implicit memory, Explicit memory, Priming, Stationary rat spade chop manoeuver

Tell me what you’ve noticed?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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4 Responses to Attention! Rat study improves understanding of memory

  1. Dinah Roberts says:

    Mate…you must be seriously blind or have really odd shaped feet.
    So implicit memory is where we want our times tables to go…

    • Yep. blind as they come. And primed to see rats. As for the times tables, 2 things. It’s straight information, facts, stuff, so by definition it’s explicit memory. Also, you can only get them in by repetition, repetition, repetition, which takes conscious effort and you’re conscious of the effort you have to make. This makes it an explicit memory.

      Where you’re going is that with repeated practice, we get better and better at retrieving the memory. I get faster and faster so that whereas once, I had to calculate the answer, now I have them associated (an explicit memory concept) which means that getting the right answer out is very quick.

  2. Rob says:

    Hey B!
    Great article. I lept in the air after lifting the lid to the rabbit hutch last week, upon seeing a slug (which looked like a snake head) inches away from my hand. Brain is conditioned, after reading far too much (and frequently) on venomous snakes!

    PS, thanks for the link to my Worthing web design company. Us web designers appreciate all the links we can get, so thank you again fella 🙂

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