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

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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You may be able to readily understand how context can make facts and figures more meaningful. What you might not realize, however, is that context can also make your thoughts and experiences more memorable and easier to understand. By understanding context-dependent memory and learning how to put that knowledge to work, you may be able to reap a variety of benefits.

Do you need help processing or recalling an important memory?

What is context-dependent memory?

Context-dependent memory can bring ideas and skills to mind when you’re in the same context in which you learned them.

When you learn something in one context, you might more easily remember it in that same context. For example, some people chew a particular flavor of gum or drink a certain type of tea while studying. When taking an exam covering that material, they chew that same gum or drink the same tea to help jog their memory. Context-dependent memory can extend to more than just learning, though. We’ll explore this in greater detail below after looking at the brain structures involved in this type of memory.

What brain structures are involved?

The two main brain structures involved in context-dependent memory are the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus is thought to be related to human emotion and memory. The prefrontal cortex is an area of gray matter on both sides of the front part of the brain. It can be useful in emotional, cognitive, and behavioral functions.

Types of context-dependent memory

Context-dependent memory includes several different subtypes. The difference between these subtypes is often related to the kind of context involved.


Your environment can have a strong effect on your ability to recall information and memories. 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 necessarily have to be identical, either. You may be able to remember facts and experiences more clearly 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 to a friend. The environment is different, so you might have trouble remembering those specs. However, when you go back to work, your context-dependent memory may make it easier to remember it when you need it.

One 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 showed that the divers remembered much more when they were in the same environment as when they initially learned the words.

State-dependent learning

State-dependent memory can come into play when you’re in the same physical or mental state in which you first learned something. Much of the research on state-dependent learning has been on the effects of being under the influence of a drug and memory.

In one study, researchers explored the effects of marijuana on state-dependent memory. Subjects were given either 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 in the same state in which they learned it.

Similar results have been shown for other drugs, alcohol, and even cigarettes. State-dependent memory studies have been maligned at times. The results aren’t always consistent, and it can be difficult to draw accurate conclusions. However, according to some researchers, this is simply the nature of memory. Since it’s impossible to remove all possibilities of other cues, it can be difficult to determine exactly what helps someone remember something and what doesn’t.


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

When people who speak more than one language learn something in one of those languages, they recall it most effectively in that same language. As for motivation, when thinking of achievement, you may be more likely to recall words and information you learned at that time.


Mood can also have a significant effect on your memory. Scientists call this phenomenon mood-dependent or mood-congruent memory. With mood-congruent memory, you may recall things that happened more easily if you are in the same mood as you were when they happened. Thus, if you want to remember something that happened when you were in a bad mood, you may have more success if you go through the mental processes that led to that bad mood. This may also explain why those who are experiencing sadness are more likely to remember and hold onto sad thoughts and memories rather than positive ones.

Context-dependent extinction

In many instances, having a strong memory can be helpful. However, there are times when the memory of something traumatic or unpleasant can seem more of a curse than a blessing. Sometimes, we just want to forget.

Context-dependent extinction is a process of disconnecting a memory from its environmental cues. 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 live or work in such a setting, they may experience post-traumatic stress syndrome (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

For as long as you live, you’ll have new things available to learn and recall. How can you do it more strongly and easily? You might try to make use of context-dependent memory to improve recall. When the context is the same, the memories may flow more easily. If you’re trying to recall something, you might try to put yourself under similar circumstances as when you learned it. Sometimes a familiar smell or taste is all that you need to recall your memories.

When needing to remember information for work or school, consider studying in the same environment in which you’ll be tested or will need to remember. Even if it isn’t the same exact environment, you can replicate many of the environmental cues from your testing site. For example, if the testing place is quiet, you might try studying where it’s quiet. If you must recall the material in a busy, noisy office, consider finding a place to study where it’s equally busy and noisy. You might also wear the same clothes while studying as you will when taking the test or having to recall the information.

You can use many environmental cues to make the connection. Consider the information you get from your five senses in the testing environment. If you can, you might expose yourself to those same sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch sensations as you study for a test or prepare for a presentation. The answers may come to you more easily and reliably when you’re in the actual environment where you need to recall the information.

You can also use what you know about state-dependent memory. If you need to be sober to take the test or otherwise recall what you’ve learned, then it may not be helpful to try to learn the information while under the influence of alcohol or other substances.

Mood-dependent memory can also make a difference in what you remember. If you need to remember positive things, you may have more success if you do it while you’re in a positive mood. You can learn to manage your moods with support, the right tools, and plenty of practice.

Putting traumatic memories in the past

If trauma from the past is still vivid in your memory, you may be able to learn to diminish the way it affects you today. Psychologists often use exposure therapy to help people make more neutral connections with the type of environment in which a traumatic event happened. There are several different types of exposure therapy, including:

  • In situ exposure therapy, which involves returning to the environment where the trauma happened
  • Virtual reality (VR) therapy, which uses a computer or VR equipment to allow a person to experience a trauma-related environment

Everyone heals from traumatic memories in different ways. If you are experiencing difficulty with memories from your past, you might consider reaching out to a licensed therapist to gain support and evidence-based strategies for overcoming those memories.

Do you need help processing or recalling an important memory?

Online counseling with BetterHelp

You can take many steps on your own to improve your memory and move past the memories that cause you emotional distress. However, if you find yourself facing problems that feel too big to manage alone, working with a licensed therapist may help. If you feel hesitant to explore difficult memories in a therapist’s office, you might consider online therapy, which allows you to connect with a therapist through audio or video chat. 

BetterHelp has a network of more than 30,000 licensed therapists, so you can be matched with a therapist who has experience with traumatic memories, PTSD, or other concerns related to memory. 

The efficacy of online counseling

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common mental health condition that can develop after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. In many cases, it can be difficult to forget the memories of this event, and you may find yourself having frequent flashbacks of it. Researchers have studied the effect of internet-based cognitive therapy on symptoms of PTSD (CT-PTSD). In one study, they found that “internet-delivered cognitive therapy for PTSD appears to be an acceptable and efficacious treatment.” Also, 80% of participants experienced clinically significant improvement in symptoms of PTSD.

Below are some reviews of online therapists who have helped people understand, unlock, and overcome their memories.

Counselor reviews

“I have really appreciated my subscription to BetterHelp, and have recommended it to a couple friends. My therapist helped me get through a really difficult time. It was such a relief knowing she would respond immediately when I needed support. And even when our conversations were difficult, she always pulled me through. I have more confidence in my ability to refute anxiety and face it, rather than avoid and give power to old memories. Thanks, B”

“Carmen is really insightful, listens to me, and acknowledges my experience and challenges with PTSD. I feel heard and supported. It’s been only a short amount of time but I am confident in her ability to help me.”


Context-dependent memory can have an impact on multiple areas of life. While this type of memory may lead to challenges with traumatic memories, it can also be used to improve learning and cognitive function. It may help to explore the influence of context-dependent memory with a licensed therapist. 

With BetterHelp, you can choose a therapist who has training in ways to help people navigate their memories and tap into the power of memory control. Take the first step to using context-dependent memory to your advantage and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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