If you've ever wandered aimlessly around a room trying to remember why you got up in the first place, you're not alone. Once you give up and return to your chair, only to have the answer spring to your mind the moment you sit down, you have experienced context-dependent memory. The human brain is a complex organ that is capable of processing amazing amounts of data-far more than the conscious mind can recognize and manipulate at any given time. This is where context-dependent memory comes in.
Basics of context-dependent memory
Context-dependent memory is the term used for memory recall that relies on a specific contextual framework, whether it be the environment where the memory was made, words attached to the memory or items that might trigger it. Without this context, your ability to recall the information in question may be impaired, or you might not be able to remember it at all. Basically, your brain files away input that it receives from the environment, but it may not all be readily available to your conscious thought.
To better understand what context-dependent memory is, think of a room full of filing cabinets. While the cabinets may be filled to overflowing with information, there's no way you can read it all at once. However, if you go to a specific drawer, you will find neatly ordered files that are relevant to the label on that drawer. The drawer is your context, and the files are memories-information that can only be accessed by using the right circumstances or cues.
Context-dependent memory studies
Research into context-dependent memory began in the 1930s, though it wasn't until the 50s that productive studies were conducted that indicated a strong link between memory and environment. Throughout the 70s, a variety of studies showed unequivocally that recall for any given bit of information improves when the person is in the same or similar environment to when they learned the information. Since then, context-dependent memory in all its forms has been used in effective mnemonic devices.
How to use context-dependent memory in mnemonics
Mnemonics refers to the art of memory development, specifically improving recall. Most mnemonic devices hinge on an individual accessing context-dependent memory. One particularly effective device was popularized through the fictitious archvillain Hannibal Lecter, whose amazing memory was attributed to his "memory palace." This concept involves building a mental image of a building with certain memorable features or decorations. Whenever there's something you want to remember, you create a mental picture that correlates to the information and place it, in your mind's eye, somewhere in your memory building. This ties the memory into a context that is always with you.
Context-dependent memory may come into play quite often if you're in the habit of losing your cell phone, keys, glasses or other important items. When these turn up missing, what do you do? If you're like most people, you probably think of the last time you saw it, then mentally or physically retrace your steps while recalling what you did. In this way, the lost item is almost always found.
Words or phrases are another popular use of context-dependent memory in mnemonics. After all, how could you remember the colors of the rainbow without your friendly neighbor, Roy G. Biv? What about the order of functions within mathematical equations, if not for My Dear Aunt Sally? These are but two uses of context-dependent memory with words, reminding people that the colors and order of a rainbow are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, and that mathematical equations must be worked in the order of multiplication, division, addition and subtraction.
With such powerful tools, memory recall can be almost effortless.