Context Dependent Memory


One of the most commonly noted examples of such dramatic long-term reinstatement effects is the flood of memories one experiences when returning to a former residence after a long absence.

Examples of environmental context (EC)-dependent memory: One comes back home to his native town or goes back to the university he has spent five years and suddenly torrent of memories overwhelm him. These memories are sharp, clear, emotionally saturated and vivid – they are contextually evoked.

Another context memory interference is when one fails to recognize some familiar person, when meets him at a different place. For example, one may greet the door keeper in front of his office building twice a day. But if this same person meets this door keeper out of the habitual context, for example, in the city mall, he will probably not recognize him.

Another short term memory context dependence is observed in the daily situation when in the daily fuss we forget why we are heading somewhere – when we comeback to the place where we took the decision to head for somewhere and do something, we immediately recollect our decision.

Vacations and environmental and context memory – the reason why people desire vacation far of the usual environment is to change the memorized context.


The laboratory studies of physical reinstatement effects demonstrate that although EC reinstatement has been found to aid memory in a variety of studies by numerous investigators, reported failures

to find EC effects are also numerous. Considering the likelihood that many failures to find an EC effect have not been reported, the unpredictability of the effect appears to be one of the most important considerations of EC-dependent memory.

Encoding environmental context

In fact, Eich (1985) and Baddeley (1982) have independently proposed that EC-dependent memory may occur only when contextual and target information are integrated in memory.

Context interferes in the remembering when during the memorizing it is integrated (consciously or not) with the memorized objects.

Environmental Imagery

That is, subjects can image a previously experienced EC and use the internally generated image as a memory cue even if that EC is not physically present.

This is useful technique for recall of events and recognizing people and objects. Our memory works always in context, I tis the natural way of memorizing and thus it is the best way for recall the desired situation or objects.

Classroom studies

The results of these studies are contradictory: some experiments prove environment dependent memory, some disclaim it. The hypothesis in such researches is that the children would have higher test scores if perform the test in their habitual class room conditions and if test is hold at another place, experimenters hypothesize worse results. However, different researches have opposite results…

Environmental context as an organizational cue

Another commonly found EC-dependent memory effect is the reduction of interference which occurs when different lists of learning materials are presented in different ECs (Table 2.4). The results of such studies are quite consistent, showing reduced proactive interference (Dallett and Wilcox, 1968; Coggins and Kanak, 1985) and retroactive interference (Bilodeau and Schlosberg, 1951; Eckert, Kanak and tevens, 1984; Greenspoon and Ranyard, 1957; Coggins and Kanak, 1985; Strand, 1970). Such studies indicate that associated EC information can act as an organizational cue, decreasing interference among sets of learned materials with different contextual referents.

These are very interesting results, stemming (in my opinion) from the induced need of additional efforts exertion and context ignoring in order the given materials to be memorized successfully in the conditions of changing environmental context.

Individual differences in environmental context memory dependency

A reasonable candidate for such a personality factor is field dependence/independence (e.g. Goodenough, 1976). Field dependence is considered to be one aspect of a more general personality factor defined by

a holistic (field-dependent) vs an analytical (field-independent) orientation to the world. Field-dependent subjects are less able than field-independent ones to avoid contextual influences in making perceptual judgements; that

is, they are more affected by perceptual contexts. It may also be the case that field-dependent subjects are more affected by learning and memory contexts than field-independent subjects. There are some data supportive

of this hypothesis found by Smith and Rothkopf (1984), Smith (1985a), and Kanak and Stevens (1985), who found that field-dependent subjects had more context-dependent memories than field-independent ones.

Field dependency/independency is extremely interesting psychological construct, comprising every approach and cognitive process of the person. The field (context) dependent person is more sociable, emphatic, intuitive, talkative, socially adaptive and active – but also field (context) dependent, in our case context memory dependent.

The field independent person is as a rule of thumb rational, logic, more critical, distant and cognitively centered. He is also field (context) independent, which in our case stands for environmental context independency.

Another factors for individual differences is the ability to image, spatial memory and visualization and age.

Different context views

Internal vs external context

External is the environmental context. Internal context is the bodily state, the mood state, thinking and emotional processes.

Meaningful vs incidental context

Meaningful context is the context that has something to do with the memorized material – directly or indirectly.

Incidental context is the context incidentally present within the attention during the memorization task. It might be neutral, distracting or supporting memorization.

Orlin Baev, psychologist and psychotherapist

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