This blogspot will be based on the question “what is context dependent memory?”. It will answer the queries related to how context dependent memory works, the neuroanatomy for context dependent memory, types of context dependent memory,  state dependent memory, environment dependent memory, mood dependent memory, mood dependent memory and cognition dependent memory.

What is context dependent memory?

Context dependent memory is a type of learning that refers to enhanced learning experiences with improved quality of encoding and retrieval of specific content, episodes and information when the context present at encoding and retrieval are the same.

According to the book “Theoretical Aspects of Memory” in the context dependent memory the events are represented in the memory and thus they cue the relevant information in the brain related to contextual information.

How does  context dependent memory work? (The Neuroanatomy)

The context dependent memory among humans works through the activation of following parts of the brain:

  • Hippocampus
  • Prefrontal cortex

Both of these brain structures are involved in the emotional, cognitive and behavioral functions of the human body. The hippocampus is majorly associated with the human emotions, memory function and autonomic nervous system of the brain.  The prefrontal cortex, present on either side of the brain, is associated with behaviors related to emotions and cognitions among humans.

Research studies have also highlighted the role of prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus in context dependent memory. Wagner, Desmond & Gabrieli, (1998) conducted a research study that highlighted the role of hippocampus in context dependent memory. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging technique to determine the role of hippocampus in context dependent memory. The findings suggested that when the contextual scenario is the same for encoding and retrieval of a certain memory, an elevated activation in the hippocampus region of the brain was observed. This advocated that the hippocampus played a significant role in context dependent memory among humans.

Yet another research study conducted by Kalisch et al (2006) advocated the role of prefrontal cortex along the hippocampus in context dependent memory. The findings revealed that context-dependent extinction is positively correlated to prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. 

Wagner et al (1998) using a functional magnetic resonance imaging concluded that the right prefrontal cortex is greatly involved in the contextual information encoding and retrieval. They found a differential activation of various regions of prefrontal cortex and hippocampus depending on the content of the memory. The authors suggested that the differential activation of prefrontal cortex and hippocampus regions of the brain draws upon changes in the contextual information that these two regions have an important role to play in context dependent memory. 

Types of Context Dependent Memory

Following are the various types of context dependant memory

  • Environmental

Human environment plays a significant role in making memories.  It strongly affects our ability to remember and recall events. The environmental context dependent memory is best described when environmental conditions affect the cognitive abilities of humans. 

The most prominent understanding of this concept comes from the research work of Goddon and Baddley (1975). They worked with deep sea divers in order to advocate the role of environmental factors in context dependent memory. The study findings suggested that the divers who learned a list of unrelated 2-3 syllable words in cold water were better able to retrieve the information in cold water only.

The research findings of Goddon and Baddeley were later replicated to further understand the differences between learning underwater and in land. The research (Smith,1988) concluded that the list of words learned by divers underwater was best recalled underwater and the words learned by drivers inland were best recalled while they were inland. 

The environmental context dependent memory is further related to 

  • Short term reinstatement effect

The short term reinstatement effect elaborates that a certain memory about a context or an event can be recalled by going back to the context where it occurred. 

A practical example of this phenomena is the casual forgetfulness that occurs at home or office settings. Momentary forgetting like one person wanted to get something from the kitchen while working from home from the study room. Upon reaching the kitchen, a person tends to forget what he actually wanted to get from the kitchen. In such a scenario, going back to the study room might help retrieving the forgotten content. 

  • Long Term reinstatement effect

The long term reinstatement effect in context dependent memory relates to the time between encoding and retrieval and its effect on the memory. 

The long term reinstatement effect suggests a positive correlation between time and memory in a particular context. A functional example of the long term reinstatement effect is a rush of memories at the time of college reunion related to college experiences in school. 

Similarly, revival of memories from the nuclear attacks in the families of survivors is yet another example of long term reinstatement effect.

  • Cognitive Context Dependent Memory

The cognitive context dependent learning implies the encoding and retrieving an information is much easier when the cognitive states for learning the memory are the same as that at the time of retrieval. 

The two cognitive states that play a vital role in context dependent memory are language and motivational state.

Language (Cognitive Context Dependent Memory)

The language context dependent memory implies that when people speak more than two languages, learn a concept in a single language, they are able to recall better the aspect in the same language only.

The most strong evidence to the cognitive context dependent learning comes from the studies conducted on bilingual speakers. Studies conducted on Russian Immigrants, Japanese-American students, Spanish – English participants and Polish- English bilinguals have all advocated the positive effect of language on the encoding and retrieval of cognitive context dependent memory (Larsen, Schrauf, Fromholt & Rubin,2002).

Motivation State ( cognitive context dependent memory)

Motivation state of an individual between encoding and retrieval of a memory also play a statistically significant role in context dependent memory.  This implies that under a feeling of achievement, a greater sense of self or a positive self image; learning is enhanced and there is a greater chance to retrieve the encoded information. 

Research evidence suggests that motivation state at the time of learning is statistically proven to have a positive effect on retrieval. When neutral pairs of  words were associated with high motivation states, they were retrieved better as compared to the control measures (Woike et al, 2009).

  • State Dependent Memory

The state dependent memory refers to improved recall of information, episodes or events when the cues relating to emotional and physical state are the same upon encoding of the memory and its retrieval.

State dependent memory implies  that people recall information more effectively and efficiently when their physiological, physical and emotional states at the time of encoding and retrieval are the same.

Research for finding out the evidence of state dependent memory has been conducted with various substances like alcohol, morphine and other drugs. Findings suggest that the events occuring with problem drinkers and casual drinkers, when they are drunk, are best recalled when they are intoxicated ( Goodwin, Powell, Bremer, Hoine, & Stern, 1969). 

  • Mood Dependant Memory (Mood Congruent Memory)

The mood dependent memory implies that there is a greater tendency to recall events that happened in a particular emotional state in the same emotional state. 

A general implication is that when a person is in a bad mood there is a greater ability to recall unpleasant and bad events of life. Happy people have a greater tendency to recall happy events of life as compared to sad people who will recall majorly sad events and mishaps from life ( Mayer, McCormick & Strong,1995).


The present blogspot answered the question ‘what is context dependent memory?”. We learned the  biological factors associated with context dependent memory. We also discussed the various types of context dependent memory including environmental, state, cognitive and mood. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS) : Context Dependent Memory

What is meant by context dependent memory?

Context dependent memory states that retrieval of a certain episode, event or content is easy when it is retrieved at the same context at which it was encoded. It depends on the following factors:

  • Environment
  • Physiological 
  • Cognitive 
  • Mood 

What is state dependent memory?

State dependent memory implies that recall of a certain memory is efficient when the physiological and emotional state of encoding and retrieving the information are the same. 

Why is context dependent memory important?

Context dependent memory is important for the quick, efficient and effective retrieval of the events. When you learn something in one event it will be easy to retrieve it under the same physical and physiological circumstance.


Wagner, A. D., Desmond, J. E., Glover, G. H., & Gabrieli, J. D. (1998). Prefrontal cortex and recognition memory. Functional-MRI evidence for context-dependent retrieval processes. Brain: a journal of neurology, 121(10), 1985-2002.

Godden, D. R., & Baddeley, A. D. (1975). Context‐dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and underwater. British Journal of psychology, 66(3), 325-331.

Smith, S. M. (1988). Environmental context—dependent memory.

Larsen, S. F., Schrauf, R. W., Fromholt, P., & Rubin, D. C. (2002). Inner speech and bilingual autobiographical memory: A Polish-Danish cross-cultural study. Memory, 10(1), 45-54.

Mayer, J. D., McCormick, L. J., & Strong, S. E. (1995). Mood-congruent memory and natural mood: New evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(7), 736-746.

Woike, B. A., Bender, M., & Besner, N. (2009). Implicit motivational states influence memory: Evidence for motive by state-dependent learning in personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(1), 39-48.

Goodwin, D. W., Powell, B., Bremer, D., Hoine, H., & Stern, J. (1969). Alcohol and recall: State-dependent effects in man. Science, 163(3873), 1358-1360.

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