What is State Dependent Learning? Memory problems?


By David Joel Miller.

Is it State Dependent Learning or Forgetting?

The way we feel emotionally and the things in our systems, drugs, medications and general health all influence what we remember and what we forget. State Dependent Learning is about times we remember and times we forget – the very same facts.

Say you go to a party or a bar after work and you have a few drunks. During the course of the evening you talk to a lot of people. Let’s say for this example you have a lot of fun, it was a great time.

You have a few drinks but you are sure, positive, you are not drunk.

Next morning you look in your pocket or purse and there are a couple of business cards, only you can’t remember who these people are. Are they potential clients? Were you supposed to do something for them? Or did they try to sell you something? You just can’t remember. So you stick those cards back where they were and go about your day.

You are positive you were not that drunk, this is no alcoholic blackout. But it is frustrating anyway to not be able to remember why you have those business cards.

Later that day some of the people from your office are off to lunch, lunch with a client and you need to be there. So during this lunch you have a drink or two. Suddenly you have a thought about those business cards in your pocket. So you pull them out and – yes now you remember the whole conversation and why you saved those cards.

You have just experienced State Dependent Learning.

In State Dependent Learning it is as if your brain uses different filing cabinets for information depending on how you system is functioning. With alcohol in your blood stream the brain files the information away in a “file needed when drinking” and locks it away. To get the file cabinet open and find that information you need the right key, in this case alcohol, in your system to reopen the locked file cabinet.

Alcohol is not the only drug or medication that results in State Dependent Learning and lost file keys are not the only problem that can happen when filing information or trying to retrieve it.

Memories can get lost or distorted when they are filed away. Sometimes, as with alcoholic blackouts, the info is misplaced before going into the file. In that case the brain, on discovering the file is empty, makes something up. This is called Confabulation.

Problems can happen when the information is stored and some drugs affect storage. The info can also be hard to find if it is stored in the “high” cabinet and you look for it in the “feeling normal” file space.

The size and nature of the information also matters. Say you need to remember a long list of words. If the words are makes of cars, types of seafood and tools sold in a hardware store, telling you those categories at the time we read the list to you will help you remember them. If the list is long, has words from many categories, and we don’t tell you the categories, the words will be harder to remember.

The brain has filing systems for category lists and for jumbled lists. Different drugs can affect different kinds of information storage and memory so the research can drive you nuts trying to figure out which drugs result in State Dependent Learning all the time and which only cause State Dependent Learning part of the time.

Alcohol appears to result in State Dependent Learning and other memory problems a lot.

Students who use a lot of caffeine to stay awake all night and study for finals appear to have a similar problem. Things learned under the influence of stimulants are very dose dependent. So if you take a little of the stimulant you may learn more, take too much and it may block memory retention at all.

Methamphetamine users not only don’t learn a lot but begin to lose previously learned material. This makes us wonder how much amphetamine is helpful and how much of an ADHD med you can take before it impairs memory.

So our student, who studies all night, using stimulants to stay awake, may find two problems facing them the next day. State Dependent Learning may require them to have the same stimulant and amount of stimulant in their system as when they learned it. This will be more or less of a problem depending on the type of memory involved. Picking out the correct answer from a multiple choice list will not be so much affected. Remembering a list of things that are not on the paper may be harder. So will recognizing a correct answers if the instructor uses a different word to describe the same concept.

The student may also find that the things they could remember easily when wide awake on the stimulant, those answers can’t be found now that the brain is looking in the I am “so-o-o” tired file cabinets. You physical condition and mood can also affect learning and memory as can the context.

Frankly – no drug appears to improve your memory over a long time and using drugs or alcohol runs the risk of getting the facts you need lost in a wrong file cabinet and not available when you need them.

Other drugs and prescribed medications can also cause memory problems and or State Dependent Learning. Watch for more on this topic to come.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books

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9 thoughts on “What is State Dependent Learning? Memory problems?

  1. I wish you would have talked about the number 1 drug being used by our (at least my) high school students: marijuana! The students believe that it actually helps them focus and they think it makes them smarter. Never mind the fact that over the years, my admitted pot smokers always end up dropping out for one reason or another. I do see the lack of motivation pot is known for kicking in but many of them end up in trouble with the law (even with their precious medical marijuana cards)!

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    • Thanks for mentioning that. Marijuana, and over the counter medications have significant effects on memory storage and retrieval. I plan to write more in this in the future. Not sure that it will help the weed smokers. Even if they read the post they won’t remember it.

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