This blog answers: How does context-dependent memory work? How is the brain involved in context-dependent memory? What are the types of context-dependent memory?
How does context-dependent memory work?
When we are forming memories, there is always a context involved in that process. For instance, when you are memorizing a set of numbers while sitting on your couch at home, the context, in this case, is your home.
When information goes into your brain, it gets encoded and stored to be retrieved later on. The concept of context-dependent memory suggests that information recall is easier and effective when information when the context in which it was encoded is the same as the context in which you are trying to retrieve it.
It simply means that you are more likely to recall something if you recall it in the same context in which you had memorized it. The idea is that when your brain encodes and stores the information, it also encodes and stores the context with it.
When you try to recall that information, your brain takes cues and hints from the context, which improves the efficiency of the recall. An example might elaborate it even further. Consider that you are at home sitting on a chair by your table.
You have a pen in your hand and a piece of paper on which you are writing. Later that day, you come home, and you want to continue the writing, but you can’t find your pen. When trying to recall where you had left the pen, your brain actively thinks of the context in which that had happened.
Your brain takes hints from the context of you “leaving your pen” somewhere, and that enables you to locate the pen. You go to your room where you were writing, you look around, and then you remember where you had left the pen.
If you try to recall it in a different context, say at your gym, the likelihood that you will successfully recall it is far less. That’s how context-dependent memory works.
The term ‘context’ in context-dependent memory refers to environmental context, your state of mind (for instance, your mood), and your cognitive context.
How is the brain involved in context-dependent memory?
Studies have shown that two brain regions, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex, are involved in context-dependent memory.
The hippocampus gets highly activated when the context in which information is encoded in the brain is the same as the context in which the information is recalled.
Similarly, when there are contextual cues available at the time of recall, the brain’s prefrontal cortex is also highly activated. In the case of the prefrontal cortex, the right prefrontal cortex is more strongly related to context-dependent memory than the left prefrontal cortex.
What are the types of context-dependent memory?
Based on the nature of the context in which encoding, and retrieval of information occur, there are three basic types of context-dependent memory:
Environmental context-dependent memory
Memories are always formed in a certain environmental context. A memory is more likely to be recalled if it is retrieved in the same context in which it was encoded.
For example, if you learn something while you are in the water, the likelihood that you will recall it successfully is higher when you are in water than when you are on dry land.
Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the reinstatement effect; that is, the context is reinstated when we are trying to remember something.
However, some processes may hinder or affect the reinstatement of the environmental context. For instance, if there is a better environmental cue available, it will suppress the actual cue during the process of retrieval of information.
The probability that you will recall certain information is higher if you try to retrieve it in the same emotional mood in which you were at the time of encoding of the memory.
For example, memories you make in an intoxicated state are more likely to be retrieved if you are in the same intoxicated state. Similarly, if you made a memory during a sad state of mind, you are more likely to recall it when you are sad.
Cognitive context-dependent memory
The probability that you will recall certain information is higher if you try to retrieve it in the same cognitive context in which the encoding of the memory occurred.
For example, let’s say you are a bilingual person, and you speak both French and English. If you encode information in French, the probability that you will recall that information would be higher if you try to recall it in French as compared to English.
Context is highly important. It not only helps us understand and make sense of things in a better way, but it also affects the way we make and recall memories.
The context in which a memory is stored in the brain is also being stored in the brain along with the memory. When you try to recall something, your brain takes hints from the contextual cues that were present at the time of encoding of the memory.
Frequently asked questions: How does context-dependent memory work?
How can context be used to improve recall?
We can increase the efficiency of our recall if we take context into account. For instance, studying in a quiet room for the exam is helpful because exams are almost always taken in quiet rooms.
Are all memories context-dependent?
Short-term memories are more likely to be context-dependent than long-term memories. Procedural memories, once they are fully formed, are not context dependent.
For instance, you don’t need to remember the context in which you learned to drive a car every time you drive a car. Other types of memories, such as semantic, episodic, and autobiographical, are more context dependent.
Do you need to physically go to the actual context to recall some information?
Although going to the physical context is more helpful, you can also recall memories by simply imagining the context in which they were formed.