BOOK REVIEW: Arthur S. Reber, How to Differentiate Implicit and Explicit Modes of Acquisition (part 1)

Arthur S. Reber, How to Differentiate Implicit and Explicit Modes of Acquisition (part 1)

For an academic study that on a number of points closely tracks Shh Tract, see:

Arthur S. Reber, “How to Differentiate Implicit and Explicit Modes of Acquisition”, in Scientific Approaches to Consciousness, Jonathan Cohen and Jonathan Schooler, eds., Lawrence Eribaum Associates, 1997.

Some of these points, couched in a distinctive “scientific” language, are:

“These implicit systems, when operating in an acquisitive mode, yield a knowledge base that allows an individual to function in a variety of domains in which decisions can be made, problems can be solved, and choices arrived at without conscious recourse to mental content.” (p. 152)

“Implicit acquisition systems have a long evolutionary history and can be found operating in virtually every species of even modest neurological complexity.” (p. 152).

(I especially like this one:)

“Our subjects are conscious of the fact that they have learned something. They are aware that cognitive change has taken place during the learning phase of the experiment, they know that they know something they did not know before. They have a “feeling of knowing”.


“The quick review of the literature included here strongly supports the notion of a hierarchically structured mind/brain with a foundational implicit acquisition and representation system that operates largely independently of consciousness, hovered over by an explicit cognizing system whose operations are intimately tied to consciousness.” (p. 151)..

However, one of the several points where Professor Reber differs from Shh Tract is when he says that “The implicit-explicit distinction is not between two isolated cognitive modules but between two poles on a continuum.” (p. 145). (By “explicit cognition” he means conscious “learning” by means of words).

This is not true. Actually, implicit learning is the ONLY mode of cognition. “Explicit learning” is merely the achieving of an understanding of someone else’s proffered “knowledge” without actually integrating it into one’s own view of the world (The fact is that “explicit learning” simply cannot intentionally or predictably be integrated into the cognitive unconscious. No amount of effort will accomplish that. The cognitive unconscious makes knowledge in completely unpredictable ways. That is its job. No wonder the empiricists are frustrated in their efforts to insert specific content into the cognitive unconscious (p 141 et seq.). The cognitive conscious has a mind all its own. Obviously, “explicit learning” does make use of one’s existing “cognitive unconscious”” (*or per Shh Tract, one’s “conceptual structure”). Otherwise, we wouldn’t even be able to understand the proffered idea. But the cognitive unconscious has not changed at all. No “cognition” has occurred. Through “explicit learning” one can “learn” that there are 11 protons in the nucleus of an atom of sodium; something very useful to know; but if it comes right down to it you would have to say you “know” it only because you read it in a book. You may also “learn” from a book that there are ethereal beings called seraphim which have six wings. To see the effects of real cognition--what knowledge has really become “part of you” (a part of the structure “in the back of your mind”)--you have to ask yourself if you are truly certain of it--just you, yourself--as certain as you are that if you step off a curb into the asphalt street you will not fall hundreds of feet into an abyss (although of course even this “knowledge” can be deceptive when applied in the individual case! The knowledge itself is correct; The problem is that we often assume it is more widely applicable than it really is.). Implicit knowledge is by its nature not in words, although with some effort one can describe it and communicate it in words. Your mind has made it part of your world. It is what you see when you see the world. It is the fruit of an implicit cognitive faculty which enables creatures to adapt and survive. If you will practice the skill of shutting out everything you know (both “explicitly” and “implicitly”) while looking at the world around you, you will quickly observe that your understanding of what you see will somehow change and grow. This, and only this, is “cognition”. Human beings in the course of their history have gotten away from this skill, but it can be learned.

Professor Reber says:

“Subjects are not naturally introspectively aware of either the process or the products of implicit learning.” (p. 144). What in the world do we all do, all of us, when we look at something “in the back of our mind” in order to compare (wordlessly) what we REALLY know about the world to some new idea that has been suggested to us by someone else? When we put our fingers to our lips, get a faraway look and peer into the”back of our mind?” It’s not words or memories. It is some kind of structure. And it is certainly open to introspection. We look at it all the time.

If we couldn’t perceive its content, how could Nature expect us to act on our new and unexpected insights about the world? Or maybe Nature intended that we just act on them without thinking, as other animals probably do, and human beings have somehow gotten into the position of being able to actually identify the knowledge which has--without any effort on their part--suddenly been stored in their brain.