Context-Dependent Memory: How It Works And Why It Matters

By Joanna Smykowski

Updated December 24, 2018

Reviewer Aaron Horn

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It's easy to understand how context makes facts and figures more meaningful. What you might not realize is that context also makes your thoughts and experiences more memorable. By understanding context-dependent memory and learning how to put that knowledge to work, you can reap many benefits.

What Is Context-Dependent Memory?

Context-dependent memory brings ideas, skills, and experiences to mind when they're in the same context as they were when you experienced them before. When you learn something in one context, you'll more easily remember it in that same context.

What Are Brain Structures Involved?

The two main brain structures involved in context-dependent memory are the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

The hippocampus is thought to be the center of human emotion, the autonomic nervous system, and memory. The prefrontal cortex is an area of gray matter on both sides of the front part of the brain. It is important in emotional, cognitive, and behavioral functions.

In one study, fMRI was used to show that the hippocampus becomes highly activated when the context of getting the information matches the context of retrieving it.

As for the prefrontal cortex, it has also been observed through fMRI. One study showed that the right prefrontal cortex was strongly activated only if contextual clues were present.

Types Of Context Dependent Memory

The context-dependent memory includes several different subtypes. In short, the difference between these types is the type of context involved.

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Environmental

Your environment has a strong effect on your ability to recall. For instance, you may have trouble remembering much from your childhood. However, if you go back and walk through your childhood home, memories that have been hidden for years may suddenly spring to mind.

The environment doesn't have to be identical, either. You may be able to remember facts and experiences better anytime you're in a similar environment. Suppose you were given a specs sheet to read and memorize during your work hours. Now, suppose you're at home trying to relay that information it to a friend. The environment is different, so you might have trouble remembering those specs. Yet, when you go back to work, your context-dependent memory may make it easier to remember it when you need it.

An interesting study tested deep-sea divers in two different environments. They learned a list of words in a cold-water environment and tried to recall those words in the same environment as well as on land. The experiment went on to test land-learning as well. The results of all the tests were that the divers remembered much better when they were in the same environment they were in when they learned the words.

State-Dependent Learning

State-dependent memory comes into play based on whether you're in the same or a different physical and mental state you were when you learned and tried to recall something. Much of the research on state-dependent learning has been on the effects of drugged states.

Eich was one researcher who studied the effects of marijuana on state-dependent memory. Subjects were either given a placebo or actual marijuana. Then, they were given a list of categorized words. They were then asked to recall the words when they were using either the placebo or the marijuana. In all cases, those who learned in one state (drugged or not drugged) recalled the words most easily when they did it in the same state in which they learned it.

Similar results have been shown for other drugs, alcohol, and even tobacco cigarettes. State-dependent memory studies have been looked down on at times. The results aren't always the same, and it can be difficult to draw accurate conclusions. However, according to Eich, this is simply the nature of memory. Because it's impossible to remove all possibility of other cues, it's difficult to determine exactly what is helping you remember something and what isn't.

Cognitive

Cognitive context-dependent memory is based on the cognitive state you're in when you learn and remember. While there may be other cognitive states that are significant, the two main states that have been studied are language and motivational state.

When people who speak more than one language learn something in one of those languages, they recall it best in that same language. As for motivation, when you're thinking of achievement, you're more likely to recall words you learn at that time.

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Mood

Mood can also have a dramatic effect on your memory. Scientists call this phenomenon mood-dependent or mood-congruent memory. In mood-congruent memory, you recall things that happened more easily if you were in the same mood when they happened as they are when you try to remember them. Thus, if you want to remember something that happened when you were in a bad mood, you'll likely have more success if you go through the mental processes that led to that bad mood.

Context-Dependent Extinction

It's wonderful to have a good memory most of the time. However, there are times when the memory of something traumatic or disastrous is more of a curse than a blessing. Sometimes, we just want to forget. Sometimes, it's even healthy to forget, or at least for the memory to fade and become less vivid.

Context-dependent extinction is a process of disconnecting the memory from the environmental cues. So, for example, if a soldier had a traumatic experience in a jungle setting, those memories may be very vivid whenever they're in that type of natural setting. If they have to live or work in such a setting, they may suffer from PTSD until they can train themselves to dissociate the war trauma memory from the physical cues in their environment.

How To Enhance Learning And Recall

As long as you're alive and human, you'll have new things available to learn and recall. How can you do it better and more easily? Simply play the matching game. When the context is the same, the memories flow more easily.

A study in the same type of environment in which you'll be tested or need to remember. Even if it isn't the same environment, you can replicate many of the environmental cues from your testing site. If the testing place is quiet, study where it's quiet. If you have to recall the material in a busy, noisy office, then you need to find a place to study where it's equally busy and noisy.

You can use any environmental cues to make the connection. Think about the information you get from your five senses in the testing environment. If you can, expose yourself to those same sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch sensations as you study and learn. The answers will come to you much more easily and reliably when you're in the testing environment.

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Use what you know about state-dependent memory, too. If you need to be sober to take the test or otherwise recall what you've learned, then don't try to learn it when you're drunk or high.

Mood-dependent memory can make a difference in what you remember as well. If you need to remember positive things, you'll do it better if you're in a positive mood. Of course, you can't just say; I'm going to be happy and immediately be happy. Even if you could do this for a negative mood, it wouldn't be advisable, at least not outside of a therapeutic situation. Yet, you can learn to manage your moods better with help and practice.

Putting Traumatic Memories In The Past

If trauma from the past is still vivid in your memory, you can learn to diminish the way it affects you today. Psychologists use exposure therapy to help you make more neutral connections with the environment where the trauma happened. There are several different types of exposure therapy, including:

  • In situ exposure therapy - returning to the environment where the trauma happened
  • Virtual reality therapy - using a computer or VR equipment to experience the trauma-related environment

Your therapist can help you decrease the distress you feel in that environment so that you can be open to new experiences there that aren't traumatic. Through the experience itself as well as talk therapy before and after the experience, you can put the past in the past and move more confidently into the present.

If you'd like to talk to a therapist about context-dependent memory issues, including PTSD, phobias, or anxiety, you can go to BetterHelp.com for personal, private online therapy. You'll be matched with a licensed therapist who can work with you to use what we know about context-dependent memory to improve your life now and in the future.

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You may have much more control over your memory than you might imagine. Whether you're a struggling student or a veteran with PTSD (or both), you can take advantage of all the research that's been done on context-dependent memory to manage your memory the way that works best for you. When you do, you'll gain a greater ability to have the life you want.


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