Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Improve Memory through the “Context Effect”

Recently I read this article from Ryan Levesque’s site at

and I REMEMBERED an event in my life from the age of 5!

  • Where I was
  • What I was doing and
  • What was said to me

Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic representations of what happened


Here is Ryan’s article.  Look him up

When we attempt to learn or memorize new information — anything from a person’s name to historical dates — and try to encode that new information into our brain, most of us focus 100% of our mental energy on the “what” part of that information.

That is, we focus on trying to encode WHAT that person’s name is, or WHAT the day, month, and year of that particular historical date is.

Which makes sense, right?

But one thing most people ignore — or don’t pay full attention to — is the “where” component associated with each new piece of information we learn.

That is, WHERE we are — our physical environment — when we attempt to learn or memorize that new information.

If you’re looking to improve your memory, a simple way to get a nice little bump in your recall ability, is to pay CONSCIOUS ATTENTION to your surroundings and environment — the “where” component — whenever you learn new information.

And here’s why:

The reason this is worth taking the time and effort to do is because of something known as the “context effect.”

Numerous studies have demonstrated the power of the “context effect” — which is essentially the fact that if you learn something in one context, then you can later recall that information better in that same context, rather than in a new or different context.

One famous study from the 1980s illustrated an extreme example of the context effect by putting test subjects underwater in a scuba diving suit and teaching them new information.

Later, subjects were tested on their ability to recall the new information they’d learned — both above and under water. And they performed remarkably better when asked to recall the information while underwater — the same environment in which they originally learned that information.

Many similar studies have replicated the same results.

Okay, so what’s the practical application of this, and how can you use it to improve your memory in everyday situations?

First, it helps to understand quickly WHY exactly the “context effect” is so effective:

Essentially, when you pay attention to the context in which you learn something while you learn it — that context in turn becomes a cue or “memory landmark” associated with that newly learned material.

And in the same way that you might use a physical landmark to help you navigate around an unfamiliar city, you can use a memory landmark to help recall information.

You can also take this strategy a step further by not only associating a new piece of information with your general surroundings while you learn that information (e.g. when learning someone’s name at business conference), but also associating that new piece of information with a very specific, concrete element within your environment (e.g. associating that person’s name with the coffee machine you were standing next to while being introduced to that person.)

When it comes time to recall that person’s name down the road, you may recall that you met that person at the business conference… and were introduced next to the coffee machine. Those additional cues can be extremely powerful in helping to recall that person’s name.

The “context effect” has other practical implications as well.

For example, if you’re studying for an exam or preparing to deliver a performance or speech — you can improve your recall by studying or rehearsing in the same location in which you’ll be taking the test or giving the final performance.

By doing so, you’ll have the same visual, environmental cues around you when it comes time take your exam or deliver your performance as when you were studying or rehearsing the information — SO you can use these visual, environmental cues to help “jog your memory” if you have difficulty recalling information during your exam or performance.

Research has also found that the “context effect” can help with memory in other ways as well. For example, studies have shown that learning multiple word lists in several different rooms produce better recall than when learning all the word lists in one single room.

Why exactly?

Well it’s thought that by studying in different rooms, you create greater variability in context — and therefore have a wider variety of visual cues at your disposal with which to associate different pieces of learned information.

So an approach you might take if you’re preparing for an exam is to divide your test matter into different themes or subjects — and study each of those subjects in a different room or location (and consciously pay attention to your environment while studying).

So for example, when it comes time to recall information for your physics test, you might remember that you were studying Newton’s Laws while standing in the kitchen, and the formula for deriving force, velocity, and mass while lying on the floor in your bedroom.

By taking this approach, you’ll have a different set of environmental cues available to associate with each topic or sub-topic when it comes time to recall on your test.

It really doesn’t take much effort or work to incorporate the “context effect” into your study routines or as you attempt to memorize new information in everyday situations. But if you’re interested in improving your memory, the payoff of this simple strategy can be tremendous! :-)

To learn practical ways you can improve your memory today, sign up to receive the Free Memory Improvement Quick Start Guide.

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