The role of context in memory recall

Scintillating title, I know. Let me see if I can explain this important phenomenon that we probably never think about, but which affects us all.

We know that context makes things like facts and figures more meaningful. But context also makes our thoughts and experiences more memorable. By understanding context-dependent memory and its role in learning, you can greatly improve memory recall, as well as your performance in presentations, tests and exams.

What is Context-dependent Memory?

Have you ever lost something and decided to retrace your steps to try and find it? Or come downstairs with an item and then remembered that you meant to bring down two items, and so have had to go back upstairs in order to prompt yourself to remember what the second thing was that you wanted to fetch? If you have, then you have been using a phenomenon called context-dependency. In short, context-dependent memory refers to the improved recall of information when the context present at encoding and retrieval are the same.

Take the chewing gum experiment. Subjects were asked to memorize a list of words. Some were given gum to chew at the same time. Twenty-four hours later their recall was tested. There were four groups:

While memorizing the list: During the test:
Chewed gum Chewed gum
Chewed gum No gum
No gum Chewed gum
No gum No gum

The ‘gum-gum’ subjects significantly outperformed all other groups. The ‘no gum-no gum’ group came second. The worst results came from the groups where the contexts were misaligned. So it seems context is all-important.

There are several different subtypes of context dependency. The difference between them is simply the kind of context involved.

State-dependent memory

State-dependent memory, for instance, is the phenomenon through which memory retrieval is most efficient when an individual is in the same physical and mental state as they were when the memory was formed.

So whilst context-dependent memory refers more to a person’s external environment and conditions (the location, ticking of a clock, desk arrangement etc), state-dependent memory applies to the person’s internal conditions.

Much of the research supporting state-dependent memory has been done on the effect of drugged states, including caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.  So, if you always revise while slightly caffeinated, it will probably be easiest to recall what you have revised if you are similarly ‘caffeinated’ during the test or exam.

It is not always necessary that the ‘drugs’ be externally sourced, of course. We are, ourselves, ‘walking pharmacies’ and able to change our own internal bio-chemistry. We create different moods, or emotional states, all the time and can increase or decrease our own levels of stress hormones simply by thinking positively or negatively. The literature refers to this as mood-dependent or mood-congruent memory – the idea that we recall things more easily if we are in the same mood when we try to remember them as when they happened.

So, to more easily retrieve memorised information, a person needs to ensure that they are in the same emotional state during the exam as they were when they were revising. Getting stressed or panicking in an exam puts the brain into a ‘state of emergency’ and effectively creates a ‘roadblock’ that stops information passing through. Often (annoyingly!) people find that after the exam, when they have calmed down, they remember the facts they couldn’t recall at the time.

Other types of context-dependent memory

Our environments also have a strong impact on our ability to recall information. Going back to a physical location from childhood, say, can bring back long-forgotten memories. The police use this approach by taking people back to the scene of a crime, or filming a reconstruction of an event, in order to jog people’s memories.  It has also been found that when bi- or multi-lingual people learn something in a language then they will best recall it in the same language.  We also learn/ retrieve better when we are thinking about achievement and success. These fall into the category of cognitive context-dependent memory. There are other examples, but the bottom line is always the same: when you learn something in one context, you’ll more easily remember it in the same context.

What actually happens in the brain during memory recall?

Context-dependent memory principally involves two areas of the brain; the pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus. The pre-frontal cortex is also sometimes referred to as our ‘executive’ brain. It has an important role in planning complex cognitive behaviour and is where we do our higher-level thinking and behaving. The hippocampus plays an important part in the regulation of emotion and memory, particularly long-term memory.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging scans, more commonly known as fMRI scans, are used to produce maps of brain activity.  They have shown that the hippocampus becomes highly activated when the context of getting information matches the context of retrieving it. Remember the ‘gum-gum’ experiment? Corroborating evidence of the importance of context is shown by fMRI scans of the pre-frontal cortex that only lights up if contextual clues are present.

You can usefully – and freely! – employ this knowledge to enhance your ability to memorize and recall information more easily. You can even use it in reverse to get rid of unhelpful memories and break bad habits. Your brain is AMAZING!

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