Context and State Dependent Memory (Blog 6, Week 7, 11th March)

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been looking into the multistore model of memory, and different techniques (rehearsal & encoding and chunking & acronyms) which can be used to ensure information makes its way into long term memory so it can be recalled much later in the future. This week, I thought I’d stray from the multistore model a bit and look into some other facts which can influence a person’s ability to recall information. More specifically, I looked at how different contexts or physical states can influence the retrieval of information.

Context-dependent memory

Research suggests that recall will be best when a person tries to recall the information in the same environment that they learned it in (Godden & Baddeley, 1975; Smith, Glenberg & Bjork, 1978). For example, when a student tries to recall information in an exam, they will be able to recall it best if they learned it in an environment which is similar to the exam environment.  Generally speaking, this does tend to be the case. Classrooms are set out in quite similar ways to exams; all students are sat facing the front, they can’t just get up and roam about, they can’t just chat away to the person sitting next to them and things like that. Obviously, the classroom and exam room aren’t exactly the same, classrooms aren’t quite as strict (if you talk in class you get told off, if you talk in an exam you get disqualified), but they’re similar enough!  This research can be used to the advantage of the teacher and the student; the teacher can try to make their classroom as similar to an exam setting as possible (so not letting students talk all through the lesson and sit on the desks and generally cause mayhem) and the student could make sure that they revise information in a similar setting to an exam (so going to the library or sitting at a desk in a quiet room rather than sitting in bed reading notes with music on).  This is all well and good, but what about when the information learned in a strict classroom/environment needs to be recalled in the real world? Lainema and Nurmi (2006) argue that an authentic, realistic computer program is effective when applied to a real world business. These findings are similar in schools, where programmes which are most related to real world contexts prepare students for  the real world (Roschelle, Pea, Hoadley, Gordin & Means, 2000) So it may be beneficial for schools to do a similar thing; when teaching information, make it realistic and as applicable to the real world as possible.

State-dependent memory

State-dependent memory is where a person’s physical state can influence their ability to recall information; if they are in the same state when they learn and recall information, they will recall more than if they are in a different state for learning and recalling. Miles and Hardman (1998) had participants learn and recall a list of words in one of two states: at rest or during aerobic exercise. Participants who recalled the words in the same state they learned them in recalled significantly more words than participants who recalled the words in the opposite state. This was true for both resting and exercising, so the exercise itself had no impact on memory. Other research has found similar results; Pearce et al (1990) found more words were recalled when participants were exposed to pain right before learning and retrieval (or when they were exposed to a non-painful stimulus for learning and retrieval) than participants who only experienced pain at learning or retrieval. These types of results are repeated in other scenarios such as fear-inducing stimuli (Lang, Craske, Brown & Ghaneian, 2001) and alcohol consumption (Lowe, 1982). As there is research to suggest that state dependent memory can be applied to a lot of different states, it seems reasonable to assume that schools should encourage students to arrive at school in the same state they would take their exam in. The example that springs to mind for me is being hungover, according to this theory, if you turn up for lectures hungover (or still drunk…depends how early the lecture is) because “it’s only a lecture”, but turn up to your exam sober, well rested and ready to take the exam, you’re actually not doing yourself any favours! Obviously, states like this can be controlled by the student (just don’t go to your lecture hungover…or just don’t go to your lecture and make sure you learn the information from the lecture when you’re not hungover!), but there are obvious other states which can’t be controlled. For example, if you’re perfectly healthy all year but you’re ill on the day of your exam, the physical states completely differ so your memory may suffer as a result of this (the illness could obviously have its own effect on your memory…but that’s a different story!). So, in terms of applying this theory to education, it seems there are certain states which can be controlled in order to enhance memory, but some which are out of anyone’s control. This really supports the idea of having several assessments, rather than one exam; it gives students several opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge, so if their memory is affected by the state they are in on a particular day, it will not have a huge effect on the overall grade.


So, overall, I think context and state dependent memory explains certain aspects of the education system such as the similarities between classrooms and exam rooms and why (in some cases) students are assessed at several different times. There is a lot of research to support these theories, and I think that even more could be done to use these theories to the students’ advantage, such as making content of classes more realistic and applicable to real life so that students will be able to apply their knowledge later in life rather than just in an exam. This research could also be used to help students to prepare themselves better for learning and being assessed; they could make sure when they are revising, it’s in a similar environment to the exam and they could make sure that they are in the same physical state for learning and recalling information (whenever possible, obviously they can’t help being ill!).


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

Lainema, T., & Nurmi, S. (2006). Applying an authentic, dynamic learning environment in real world business. Computers & Education, 47(1), 94-115.

Lang, A. J., Craske, M. G., Brown, M., & Ghaneian, A. (2001). Fear-related state dependent memory. Cognition & Emotion, 15(5), 695-703.

Lowe, G. (1982). Alcohol-induced state-dependent learning: Differentiating stimulus and storage hypotheses. Current Psychology, 2(1), 215-222.

Miles, C., & Hardman, E. (1998). State-dependent memory produced by aerobic exercise. Ergonomics, 41(1), 20-28.

Pearce, S. A., Isherwood, S., Hrouda, D., Richardson, P. H., Erskine, A., & Skinner, J. (1990). Memory and pain: tests of mood congruity and state dependent learning in experimentally induced and clinical pain. Pain, 43(2), 187-193.

Roschelle, J. M., Pea, R. D., Hoadley, C. M., Gordin, D. N., & Means, B. M. (2000). Changing how and what children learn in school with computer-based technologies. The future of children, 76-101.

Smith, S. M., Glenberg, A., & Bjork, R. A. (1978). Environmental context and human memory. Memory & Cognition, 6(4), 342-353.


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11 Responses to Context and State Dependent Memory (Blog 6, Week 7, 11th March)

  1. rowlatt says:

    I like the ideas in this blog, I thought that it was really interesting because in the second year when we did memory and a actually listened . An idea for your next blog could be mood dependent memory (which I found the most interesting of all).

    The method of mood dependent memory states that emotion and memory are closely linked, it has been demonstrated by finding material that are remembered more frequently and reliably when there is an emotional link to the content of information that you want to remember.
    Basically recall occurs when the congruence of present mood combines and associates with the time the memory was originally stored. If a person is really sad then they are more likely to remember other times when then have been sad, a study showed this by putting participants in high or low spirited moods (happy or sad). Their findings suggested that the memories that were recalled more successfully were those which corresponded to the mood they were put in (Eich, 1989).

    I don’t think all moods a suitable for memory e.g. rage, however it would be interesting to see the results of that or if an experiment could even be carried out, but most could be tested in this matter.

    Good blog I enjoyed reading it.

    Eich, E. (1985). Context, memory, and integrated item/context imagery. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 764-770.

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  3. psuc93 says:

    I found research which suggested that state dependent memory occurs more often when the state dependent mood is positive rather than negative (Ucros, 1989). From this I decided to look into the effect mood dependent memory has on recall. Research by Bower, Monteiro and Gilligan (1978) indicated that being in the same mood state during encoding and later recall lead to no difference in recall. When this study was replicated results again indicated that participants mood during encoding had no effect on the individuals recall (Bower & Mayer, 1985). However results have shown that when using a more complex measure rather than just sad or happy, mood can have an effect on recall (Bower & Mayer, 1985). The idea of mood having an effect on memory has also been supported in other investigations (Bower, 1981). It is suggested that a reason these results may differ is due to the fact the mood of the participant is generated rather than experienced (Eich & Macaulay, 2000). Another reason proposed for conflicting evidence is that there does not seem to be an understanding of the underlying mechanisms (Eich, 1995).

    Overall it appears that whilst other areas within state dependent memory may be effective, mood state dependent memory is not as clear. Therefore perhaps it may be beneficial to use other methods to help with academic performance. Furthermore in agreement with your blog this method may not be beneficial for educational settings, as maintaining a happy mood whilst sitting an exam or maintaining an anxious mood whilst revising may be difficult.


    Bower, G. H. (1981). Mood and memory. American Psychologist, 36(2), 129-148.

    Bower, G. H., & Mayer, J. D. (1985). Failure to replicate mood-dependent retrieval. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 23(1), 39-42.

    Bower, G. H., Monteiro, K. P., & Gilligan, S. G. (1978). Emotional mood as a context for learning and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior,17(5), 573-585.

    Eich, E. (1995). Searching for mood dependent memory. Psychological Science, 6(2), 67-75.
    Eich, E., & Macaulay, D. (2000). Are real moods required to reveal mood-congruent and mood-dependent memory?. Psychological Science, 11(3), 244-248.

    Ucros, C. G. (1989). Mood state-dependent memory: A meta-analysis.Cognition and Emotion, 3(2), 139-169.

  4. natberry2013 says:

    Your blog was interesting as it reminded me of the daft ideas that we had to come up with in our Year 2 cognition and perception module on effective revision strategies. Overall, I do agree that context and state dependent learning can have an effect on recall. However, I do think that, when applying this to revision, it does need to be taken with a pinch of salt due to the fact that it is often impossible to revise in the same room in which one is going to take an exam.

    The research you noted regarding context-dependent learning and enhanced recall are relevant and clearly demonstrate that the context in which information is learned can have a dramatic impact on recall. Additional research supporting this notion comes from Smith and Vela (2001) who conducted a meta-analysis on studies regarding context-dependent memory and recall. They found that the current research is methodologically valid and that the results obtained provide strong evidence for the fact that if an individual learns information in a particular environment, then recall is significantly better if done in the environment where this information was memorised. However, more recent research investigated context-dependent memory and chewing gum, finding no difference in recall if the participants chewed gum during learning and during recall compared to if they chewed gum in only one condition (Johnson & Miles, 2007). In spite of this evidence against context-dependent memory, the research supporting it is extremely strong and the chewing of gum is perhaps not the best method of investigating the notion, hence the contradictory findings.

    One has to consider the application of this to exams. In some cases, this may work well, for example for our Year 2 stats test in the Maclab, we could have easily learned this information in the room prior to the exam. However, many of our exams were in PJ Hall, which is somewhat impossible to revise in before exams. Therefore, this may be a good method when revising, but often unobtainable.

    You also noted that state-dependent learning and enhanced recall are significantly related, again with a vast amount of research to support this notion. Additional research has found that emotional mood can influence recall dramatically, with recall greater if participants recalled the information in the same emotional state in which they learned the information (Bower, Monteiro, & Gilligan, 1978).

    However, one needs to consider how ethical it is to advise and individual to be in the same state as they were in when learning the information during recall. For example, if a person attempts to give up smoking, but has an upcoming exam on a topic they revised whilst smoking, is it ethical to suggest that they do not quit smoking. The same can be said for an individual with depression, whereby it would be unacceptable to ask a student to refrain from taking antidepressants or attending counseling if they had revised whilst not having treatment.

    An additional method of improving recall after revising is cue-dependent learning, whereby an individual learns the information with a particular object with them, and then takes this with them for recall. This has been supported by Meacham and Colombo (1980) who found that children remembered to ask the experimenter to open a box if a toy clown was present when they were asked to remember to do so and in the experimental condition.

    Overall, I agree that context, state, and cue-dependent learning can impact on recall and are therefore important considerations when revising. However, it is often difficult to implement this in real-life settings so this research should be taken with a pinch of salt.


    Bower, G. H., Monteiro, K. P., & Gilligan, S. G. (1978). Emotional mood as a context for learning and recall. Journal of Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 17(5), 573-585.
    doi: 10.1016/S0022-5371(78)90348-1

    Johnson, A. J., & Miles, C. (2007). Evidence against memorial facilitation and context-dependent memory effects through the chewing of gum. Appetite, 48(3), 394-396. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2006.10.003

    Meacham, J.A., & Colombo, J.A. (1980). External retrieval cues facilitate prospective remembering in children. Journal of Educational Research, 73(5), 299-301. Retrieved from 4&sid=47698825724547

    Smith, S. M., & Vela, E. (2001). Environmental context-dependent memory: A review and meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 8(2), 203-220.

  5. jmssol says:

    Abernathy (1940) provides evidence for context dependent memory and in particular situational context. Participant’s ability to recall nonsense words (such as fonder, hijans and sugged) improved if they were in the same situation they were in when they had learnt the words – the situational context influenced recall in participants.

    Research has also shown that exposure to a particular cue can help improve recall. This refers to cue dependent memory and the cues refer to specific features that are present both during encoding (or learning) and recall – such as scent. From this, Tulving (1983) developed the encoding specificity principle which is used as a framework to understand how contextual cues enhance memory recall. Tulving suggested that memory for target information improves if contextual stimuli that are present at the time of encoding are also present at the time of retrieval. A body of research supports cue dependent memory and the encoding specificity principle (Cann & Ross, 1989; Schab, 1990; Smith, Standing & de Man, 1992). A study by Aggleton and Waskett (1999) used scent to provide evidence for cue dependent memory. The participants were asked questions regarding a museum they had visited seven years ago. The researchers presented the participants with a questionnaire about the museum. The participants were also given bottles of scents that were similar to the smell of the museum (such as apples and burnt wood). The results showed that the exposure to the scents enabled participants to recall more information about the museum – the cue (scent) influenced recall. Therefore, it may be a good idea for students to wear the same perfume whilst revising and in the exam.

    Great blog – I really enjoyed reading it and finding research to comment with 🙂

    Tulving, E. (1983). Elements of episodic memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Cann, A., & Ross, D. A. (1989). Olfactory stimuli as context cues in human memory. American Journal of Psychology, 102, 91-102.
    Schab, F. R. (1990). Odors and the remembrance ofthings past. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning. Memory, & Cognition, 16, 648-655.
    Smith, D. G., Standing, L., & de Man, A. (1992). Verbal memory elicited by ambient odor. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 74, 339-343.
    Aggleton, J. P. & Waskett, L. (1999). The ability of odours to serve as state-dependent cues for real-world memories: Can Viking smells aid the recall of Viking experiences? British Journal of Psychology, 90, 1-7.

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  7. psuc18 says:

    I enjoyed the topic of your blog.

    As others have mentioned, it brought back memories of the task of having to come up with revision strategies in our second year of study. Furthermore I agree with you that context does have an influence on the ability to recall. In my own experience I recall things that are most relevant or things that I believe to be more interesting than things that are not. However somebody else might not find the same things to be interesting or relevant therefore would not recall the same information as me with ease. Therefore perhaps individual differences and personal experiences might come under this umbrella of influences on recall ability as well as context?

    I look forward to reading your blog next week.

  8. psychofed says:

    As someone else has mentioned it is not always possible to be in the same room as the exam when revising because, for example, PJ Hall has other exams happening during exam period so it is not always possible to be in there for revsion purposes. Zechmeister and Nyberg (1982) found that recall improves when imagining the room that the learning took place in. This is a more practical way of taking advantage of contect dependant memory and make it work to benefit you.

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