Procedural Memory

Procedural memory, a long-term memory type, stores automatic skills like motor routines. It’s formed through practice and implicit learning, enabling efficient performance. Despite benefits like automation, challenges include limited conscious control and skill decay without practice.

Introduction to Procedural Memory

Procedural memory, often referred to as skill memory, is a type of long-term memory that is responsible for storing information about how to perform various motor skills, habits, and procedures. These skills can range from simple actions like riding a bike or tying shoelaces to more complex tasks like playing a musical instrument or typing on a keyboard. Unlike other types of memory, procedural memory is typically acquired and improved through practice and repetition, and it operates largely outside of conscious awareness.

Key Characteristics of Procedural Memory

Procedural memory exhibits several key characteristics:

  1. Implicit Nature: Procedural memory is implicit, meaning that individuals may not be consciously aware of the knowledge and skills they have acquired. They can perform tasks automatically without having to think about the specific steps involved.
  2. Skill-Based: It is primarily concerned with the acquisition and retention of skills, habits, and motor actions. These skills can be fine motor skills (e.g., playing a musical instrument) or gross motor skills (e.g., riding a bicycle).
  3. Non-Declarative: Procedural memory is considered non-declarative, meaning that it is challenging to describe in words or consciously articulate the steps involved in performing a particular skill. This stands in contrast to declarative memory, which involves the conscious recall of facts and events.
  4. Resistance to Forgetting: Once procedural memories are established, they tend to be relatively resistant to forgetting, especially when the skills are practiced regularly. This contributes to the idea that “you never forget how to ride a bike.”
  5. Incremental Improvement: Skills stored in procedural memory often exhibit incremental improvement with practice. The more a skill is practiced, the more automatic and refined it becomes.

Processes Underlying Procedural Memory

Procedural memory involves several underlying cognitive and neural processes:

  1. Skill Acquisition: When individuals initially learn a new skill, their brain forms neural connections associated with that skill. With practice, these connections become stronger, leading to improved skill performance.
  2. Consolidation: Over time, the neural representations of procedural memories undergo a process of consolidation, where the memory traces become more stable and resistant to interference.
  3. Automaticity: As skills are practiced and become more ingrained in procedural memory, they transition from conscious, effortful control to automatic, effortless execution. This shift allows individuals to perform tasks with minimal cognitive load.
  4. Motor Cortex and Basal Ganglia: Neuroimaging studies have shown that regions of the brain, such as the motor cortex and basal ganglia, are involved in the storage and retrieval of procedural memories. These brain areas are responsible for coordinating and executing motor actions.

Importance of Procedural Memory

Procedural memory plays a crucial role in our daily lives and has significant implications in various domains:

  1. Everyday Activities: It allows us to carry out routine activities, such as walking, driving, or typing, without the need for constant conscious attention.
  2. Skill Development: Procedural memory is central to skill development across various domains, including sports, music, and art. It enables individuals to become proficient in their chosen fields.
  3. Habit Formation: It underlies the formation of habits, both beneficial and detrimental. Habits are automatic behaviors that are driven by procedural memory.
  4. Recovery and Rehabilitation: Procedural memory can be harnessed in rehabilitation and therapy to help individuals relearn motor skills and regain independence after injuries or neurological conditions.
  5. Education: It has implications for educational practices, particularly in the teaching of skills and hands-on activities. Effective teaching methods often involve repetitive practice to strengthen procedural memory.
  6. Motor and Cognitive Efficiency: Procedural memory contributes to motor and cognitive efficiency by allowing individuals to execute tasks with minimal cognitive effort, freeing up mental resources for other activities.

Potential Limitations of Procedural Memory

While procedural memory offers numerous advantages, it is not without potential limitations:

  1. Lack of Awareness: Individuals may not be consciously aware of the skills and habits stored in procedural memory. This can make it challenging to modify or correct behaviors that rely on procedural memory.
  2. Difficulty in Articulation: Since procedural memory is non-declarative, individuals may find it difficult to explain or teach certain skills to others, as the knowledge is stored in an implicit, action-based format.
  3. Interference: Interference from other memories or skills can sometimes disrupt procedural memory. For example, learning a new skill that involves similar motor movements may interfere with the execution of a previously learned skill.
  4. Limited Transfer: Skills stored in procedural memory may not always transfer well to new or related tasks. For example, being an expert typist may not necessarily make someone an expert pianist.
  5. Age-Related Changes: Procedural memory can be affected by age-related changes, with older individuals experiencing declines in motor skills and the automaticity of certain tasks.

Real-World Applications of Procedural Memory

Procedural memory has a wide range of real-world applications across different fields:

1. Rehabilitation

In physical and occupational therapy, procedural memory is leveraged to help individuals recover motor skills and regain independence following injuries, surgeries, or neurological conditions.

2. Sports Training

Athletes rely on procedural memory to develop and refine their motor skills. Coaches use repetitive practice and skill drills to enhance athletes’ procedural memory and performance.

3. Music and Performing Arts

Musicians, dancers, and actors rely heavily on procedural memory to perform complex sequences of movements and actions. Practice and rehearsal play a vital role in strengthening these procedural memories.

4. Skill-Based Professions

Professions that require specific skills, such as surgery, cooking, or craftsmanship, depend on procedural memory for expertise. Mastery of these skills comes through years of practice and experience.

5. Driving

Driving a vehicle involves a complex set of procedural memories, including steering, braking, and shifting gears. As drivers gain experience, these skills become automatic and require minimal conscious attention.

6. Typing and Keyboard Skills

Efficient typing on a keyboard is a skill stored in procedural memory. Individuals who type regularly develop muscle memory that allows them to type quickly and accurately.


Procedural memory is a fundamental aspect of our cognitive architecture that enables us to acquire and store the skills and habits we need to function in our daily lives. It operates implicitly, allowing us to perform tasks automatically and efficiently. While it has its limitations, particularly in terms of conscious awareness and transferability, procedural memory plays a critical role in skill development, habit formation, and overall motor and cognitive efficiency. Understanding the processes and applications of procedural memory can enhance our appreciation of how we learn and perform various tasks.

Case Studies

Everyday Skills:

  • Brushing Teeth: Most people can brush their teeth without thinking about the specific brushing motions.
  • Opening a Door: We use procedural memory to turn a doorknob and push or pull a door open.
  • Using a Fork and Knife: Eating with utensils becomes automatic after years of practice.

Physical Activities:

  • Yoga Poses: Experienced yogis can flow through complex yoga poses seamlessly.
  • Ice Skating: Skaters can glide and perform maneuvers on ice without conscious effort.
  • Archery: Skilled archers can consistently hit their target without overthinking their aim.

Sports and Athletics:

  • Serving a Tennis Ball: Tennis players rely on procedural memory for their serving technique.
  • Free Throw in Basketball: Basketball players develop muscle memory for free throws.
  • Gymnastics Routines: Gymnasts execute intricate routines with precision.

Musical Skills:

  • Playing Guitar Chords: Guitarists can switch between chords fluidly.
  • Drumming Patterns: Drummers maintain rhythm and execute drumming patterns.
  • Piano Scales: Pianists can play scales with speed and accuracy.

Artistic Skills:

  • Painting Brush Strokes: Artists create intricate brush strokes without conscious thought.
  • Calligraphy: Calligraphers develop a consistent and beautiful writing style.
  • Pottery Shaping: Potters shape clay into pottery forms with expertise.


  • Woodworking: Skilled woodworkers craft furniture and intricate designs.
  • Metalworking: Metalworkers shape and weld metals into desired forms.
  • Glassblowing: Glassblowers create delicate glass artworks with precision.

Culinary Skills:

  • Sushi Rolling: Sushi chefs roll sushi rolls with finesse.
  • Cake Decorating: Pastry chefs decorate cakes with intricate designs.
  • Latte Art: Baristas create artistic designs in coffee foam.

Sports Skills:

  • Surfing: Surfers ride waves and maintain balance on their boards.
  • Rock Climbing: Climbers navigate routes using specialized techniques.
  • Skiing: Skiers control their movements down slopes and execute turns.

Dance Styles:

  • Ballet Moves: Ballet dancers perform graceful and complex movements.
  • Breakdancing: Breakdancers execute acrobatic moves and footwork.
  • Salsa Dancing: Salsa dancers flow through intricate partner routines.

Martial Arts:

  • Karate Kata: Martial artists perform structured forms with precision.
  • Judo Throws: Judokas execute throws and techniques in matches.
  • Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Holds: Practitioners apply holds and submissions during sparring.

Key Highlights:

  • Procedural Memory Definition: Procedural memory is a type of long-term memory responsible for storing automatic skills and motor routines. It enables individuals to perform tasks without conscious awareness.
  • Formation Through Practice: Procedural memory is developed through practice and implicit learning. Repeated actions and experiences lead to the formation of these memory traces.
  • Efficiency and Automation: Once a skill is stored in procedural memory, it can be executed quickly and efficiently. Tasks become automated, allowing individuals to perform them with minimal conscious effort.
  • Beneficial for Skill Mastery: It plays a crucial role in skill acquisition and mastery. Skills and habits, once learned, can be performed effortlessly thanks to procedural memory.
  • Use Cases: Procedural memory is involved in various activities such as riding a bike, typing, playing musical instruments, and many other skill-based tasks.
  • Benefits: It offers several benefits, including efficiency, automaticity, and long-lasting retention of learned skills.
  • Challenges: Challenges associated with procedural memory include difficulty in verbally explaining skills, the potential for errors with overlearning, and skill decay without practice.
  • Examples: Numerous examples illustrate how procedural memory is applied in everyday life, sports, arts, and various activities, making it an essential aspect of human cognition.
  • Unconscious Nature: Procedural memory operates largely outside conscious awareness, allowing individuals to perform tasks without actively thinking about each step.
  • Role in Habit Formation: It is closely linked to the formation of habits and routines, making it a key factor in shaping daily behaviors.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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