Tapping your implicit knowing

In my recent research into body-based ways of knowing I have spent a lot of time looking into different forms of memory. I have found it an enriching journey and was particularly intrigued by the theories around our implicit knowing. I would like to share with you here how I think this relates to complexity, and further, how we can better access and use this type of knowing.

Memory is broadly divided into two categories:

explicit (things we are consciously aware of and can describe)
implicit (things we may not be consciously aware of and that are hard or impossible to describe)

These two forms are often described as ‘knowing what’ (explicit memory) and ‘knowing how’ (implicit memory).

Explicit memory can refer to recall of the details of events in our lives, and also refers to the memory of facts and figures or things like shopping lists and people’s names.

Implicit memory is far more slippery to define. I have encountered multiple different categorisation systems for different types of implicit memory (Levine 2015; Taylor 2001; Davis et al 2008; Koch et al 2013). One form of implicit memory that common to all of them is called ‘procedural’ implicit memory and it relates to remembering how to perform certain skills, like riding a bike or playing the piano. You might also think of implicit memory as relating to a subtle skill set like how you motivate an employee. Other forms of implicit memory include the memory we have from being conditioned through past experience (Taylor 2001), trauma memory (Koch et al 2013), some of our emotional memories (Levine 2015).*

Koch and her colleagues describe implicit memory nicely thus:

“repeated situations or actions have merged in implicit memory, as it were, and can no longer be retrieved as single past events. They have become a tacit know-how difficult to verbalise, such as detailing how to waltz or play an instrument”
( Koch et al 2013 p84)

One way to look at implicit memory is that it is a form of memory that is expressed back into the world through an action or an impetus for an action. It does not come out as a story (knowing what), it comes out as an action or the idea for an action (knowing how). In this way it is a very visceral and physical from of memory. The action may be something complex like driving a car or facilitating a workshop. Or it may be something as simple as a gesture or a change in our posture. Given that this kind of memory does not interface easily with our capacity for language, we may not notice it in a literal way. Further, as that which cannot be verbally justified is often not trusted, this information will often be repressed and ignored.

Such repression is not entirely without reason, in a way we are right to be wary of this kind of information. Our conditioned memory may be pushing us into a response based on a stereotype for example, but the more we become aware of this kind of information, the more we can start to ‘see’ these kinds of reactions for what they are. There is a difference between repressing this information and being wary that we use it wisely.

When we are confronted with a complex situation that requires us to to make a decision our tacit information can have a lot to offer. In complex situations it impossible to know every nuance of the situation. In such cases, our literal, linear reasoning processes can only get us so far. Implicit knowledge, on the other hand, I would argue is complex knowledge in and of itself. It is not known exactly how this memory is generated from all of our experiences, but it seems that this is a complex, non-linear process. This way of knowing involves the amalgamation of a vast array of past experiences into a guiding pattern that we draw on in non-conscious ways. We have evolved in a complex world, and it makes sense that this way of knowing has developed to help us deal with the non-linear, difficult-to-describe nature of complex situations (to read more about the nature of complexity click here).

So, how can we best access and use such knowledge? Noticing our bodily impulses, sensations and reactions is a good way to begin to access tacit memory. This kind of memory has encoded many of the subtleties of our lived experience and put it together in ways that the literal side of our mind finds hard to access but our bodies express naturally. Further to simply seeing things like our conditioning as mentioned above, I believe this kind of memory can offer us access to a far more extensive store of wisdom than we could become aware of through our intellectual capacities alone.

Simply bringing our awareness to our bodies and focussing on our sensations, posture and feelings we are experiencing is a great start and can be a powerful act in itself. However, what if we could find ways to give our body-based knowing even more of a voice?

In order to start to answer this question, I want to invite you to imagine a situation you have been in that you found complex. Take your time…. As you imagine yourself in that situation, your body will start to respond. What do you notice? You may notice that your posture changes, you may be sub-consciously be making gestures or shapes with your hands as you run through aspects of the scenario in your mind. What if you exaggerated these physical movements? What if you playfully started making other movements to see how they feel in relation to the situation? What if your whole body got involved? What kind of information might this yield?

As an InterPlay facilitator I have been trained in practices that I believe tap implicit knowing in this way brilliantly, taking the small exercise in imagination above to a different level, where our implicit knowing is given voice through embodied creative expression.

InterPlay is a set of practices developed by Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry which work with improvised movement, voice, story and stillness (www.interplay.org). These practices are embedded in a philosophical framework designed to make us feel comfortable in letting our bodies ‘voice’ what they know. InterPlay has a set of  8 body wisdom tools that can help us incorporate our implicit knowing in our approach to life and work. One of these body wisdom tools is called ‘easy focus’.

I experience easy focus as a soft and diffuse way of focussing that doesn’t feel the need to be able to reason and judge – yet within which I can make decisions and play into a situation in authentic and meaningful ways. Easy focus engenders the ability to follow what feels natural by simply letting your body move and act in whatever way you notice it wants to act in that moment. There is a physical practice that goes along with this tool: you bring your fingers to your forehead (to your ‘focuser’) and make a movement as if you are physically gathering up all that you have heard or been told. You then throw it over your shoulder and let it go. Wheeeeee. Easy focus is not called easy focus for nothing, it is supposed to be easy and light. Hence you will often be encouraged to actually say whhhheeeeee as you throw all your focussed information over your shoulder.

Volumes have been written about the InterPlay practices and philosophy, but in a blog post I will just introduce you to this one body wisdom tool. I mention this one in particular because I feel that if you start to play with the little exercise in imagination I invited you to above, it is a great tool to help you get beyond ‘acting’ out your situation and to start to be able to allow your self to genuinely be moved by your situation. In order to do this, it is best to totally forget about all that you literally know about the situation, and trust the intelligence of your body to take over.

Finally, it can take practice to get comfortable with this kind of work to the extent that you see results. As Lara Boyd (a brain researcher) says, every time we learn a new skill , we change our brain. If we don’t use these ways of knowing, the areas of our brain that process information in this way will not be very large or developed, you may have to practice to get good at this way of knowing.

I know I just opened the last paragraph with the word ‘finally’, but actually I want to add one more afterthought… I toyed with the idea of describing the exercise above in more detail, but then I remembered the teachings of Brian Goodwin, one of my complexity lecturers. He was sometimes ambiguous in his instructions to us as he wanted us to learn first hand about about the power of ambiguity to generate self-organisation. It was then an easy decision to leave it as it is. I would encourage you to play with the exercise, adapt it or enlarge it in any way that feels good to you. Make it your own! There are no hard and fast rules for what works best.



*Note: these are but a few of the forms of tacit memory listed by these writers, you can look up the references below to find many many more. Some of them are also named differently but similar concepts (such as Peter Levine’s description of approach/avoidance response memory, which I would say is similar to the conditioned memory Taylor describes).


Davis, Brent, Sumara, Dennis and Luce-Kapler, Rebecca, Engaging Minds: Changing Teaching in Complex Times, Second Edition, Routledge, 2008

Koch Sabine C., Caldwell, Christine & Fuchs, Thomas, On Body Memory and Embodied Therapy, Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy, 8:2 (2013), 82-94

Levine, Peter, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past, 2015, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.

Taylor, Edward W., Transformative learning theory: a neurobiological perspective of the role of emotions and unconscious ways of knowing, International Journal of Lifelong Education, Vol. 20, No. 3 (May – June 2001), 218–236