What is situational Memory?

By David Joel Miller

Situational memory sometimes called “Environmental context-dependent memory” refers to an ability to remember information when in one situation that you are unable to remember in another.

This condition is a lot like state dependent learning but involves location rather than drug level in the bloodstream as the cause of difficulty in retrieving previously learned information. The existence of situational memory raises the question “Does situational memory influence recovery for those who have been in residential treatment or the hospital?”

Do rehab classes while someone is incarcerated result in knowledge they can use after release?  A simple example of the problem:

During the course of the week, I use several different computers in offices at varying locations. Sitting down at a particular computer workstation “cues” the memory for the password that is needed at that site. From one office I emailed myself a password protected file that needed more work that night. Once home I found I was unable to remember the password.

The following day, back at the original location I was able to quickly open the file without hesitation despite the lack of anything in the room that contained or reminded me of the password. Simply moving from desk to desk cued my memory for the password.

In a classic example of this phenomenon, researchers found that students who were taught deep-sea diving skills in a classroom on dry land were unable to remember the skill once in the water (Godden, D.R.; Baddeley, 1975). To improve recall the skills needed to be learned under realistic conditions. The effect of context on memory has been one criticism of separating recovering people from their real work environment for treatment.

Do skills learned in rehab or hospitals continue to be remembered after return home?

Current practice is to include ongoing aftercare or relapse-prevention classes after the recovering person returns to the community. Situational memories may also affect those who suffer from PTSD.

Veterans who return to the scene of their service are likely to be “flooded” with returning memories. Watching a motion picture that includes events similar to these memories can also revive painful memories. Treatment for anxiety based disorders which are triggered by re-exposure to places where a trauma occurred, especially obsessive compulsive disorder, is likely to use an Exposure and Response Prevention method in which cues to the original memory are invoked while the person is supported in tolerating the distress this causes.

Situations, where we move from one location to another, can result in cases of situational memory or situational forgetting the “Doorway effect.” Being cognitive misers we humans tend to save memory space by only retrieving knowledge in a situation where it is likely to be needed. Solutions to situational forgetting include over practice and rehearsal of skills and creating secondary memory assistance in the form of written lists or reminders placed where we will see the needed information when needed.

Many people in recovery display the serenity prayer or the twelve steps as a reminder to use their recovery skills in all situations.

It is not just the external situation that affects memory, the internal situation makes a difference also. Depressed people remember mostly negative depressing events. Laughing, smiling and telling jokes, reduces the ability to access depressing memories. The neighborhood you are in when you are in your own head comes with a landscape full of memories. Since memory has situational components, avoiding the place in which you learned something can result in forgetting of the things learned there.

Recovering people are well advised to avoid old people, places, and things. Anything that cues urges to use or to engage in other behavior that interferes with recovery can be reduced by substituting new positive cues for the old negative ones.

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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


3 thoughts on “What is situational Memory?

  1. When I came out of hospital 2 years ago they told me my memory would come back after the ECT’S I had. Yes it did, but there is still so many things that I forget! I drives me crazy!…..Paula x


  2. Pingback: Forgetting things may not be a memory problem | counselorssoapbox

  3. Pingback: I got lost again – inside my house | counselorssoapbox

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