What is Situational Memory?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Photo courtesy of pixabay.

Situational memory.

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.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Seven David Joel Miller Books are available now!

My newest book is now available. It was my opportunity to try on a new genre. I’ve been working on this book for several years, but now seem like the right time to publish it.

Story Bureau.

Story Bureau is a thrilling Dystopian Post-Apocalyptic adventure in the Surviving the Apocalypse series.

Baldwin struggles to survive life in a post-apocalyptic world where the government controls everything.

As society collapses and his family gets plunged into poverty, Baldwin takes a job in the capital city, working for a government agency called the Story Bureau. He discovers the Story Bureau is not a benign news outlet but a sinister government plot to manipulate society.

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Dark Family Secrets: Doris wants to get her life back, but small-town prejudice could shatter her dreams.

Casino Robbery Arthur Mitchell escapes the trauma of watching his girlfriend die. But the killers know he’s a witness and want him dead.

Planned Accidents  The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.

Letters from the Dead: The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.

What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead, and you could be next?

Sasquatch. Three things about us, you should know. One, we have seen the past. Two, we’re trapped there. Three, I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to our own time.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

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