The secret to remembering cover image

The secret to remembering

Dorian Minors • December 15, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Our memory is bound to the context we learn in, something we've discussed in detail before. Essentially, the closer the context in which you're trying to remember something is to the context you learned it in, the better you remember. But there can be different kinds of contexts, and the type of context will affect how we remember. For example, strawberry jam is different to a traffic jam. So, while we’ve seen that it’s easier to remember a list while underwater if we learned that list underwater, our different kinds of memory can effect our learning. It works like this:

Extrinsic context

Extrinsic context refers to context that doesn't actually change the meaning of the thing we're trying to remember. So, to our strawberry jam example, it doesn't matter if we LIKE jam or not, strawberry jam remains strawberry jam. Our mood won't effect it, the weather that day won't change what it is. These things are extrinsic to the actual nature of the jam.

I drew the jam example out of a study I was reading before I wrote this. You can infer a lot about the dietary and lifestyle habits of researchers by looking at the examples they use in their work. Worse than Facebook...

Extrinsic contexts will effect how well we actually recall things. So, if you're trying to remember what kind of jam you had on your toast the other day, you'll remember it better if you wandered into the kitchen (where you ate it) as opposed to trying to remember in your bedroom (somewhere you didn't eat it). Extrinsic contexts do not effect whether we'll recognise it though. So, when trying to remember, it won't matter if you're in your bedroom or the kitchen, if someone presents a jar of strawberry jam to you you're equally likely to remember that you ate that the other day.

Intrinsic context

Intrinsic contexts are those contexts that actually effect the meaning of the thing you're trying to learn. So, before, when I was talking about the difference between a traffic jam and strawberry jam, I was talking about the linguistic context, which is intrinsic. Unlike extrinsic contexts, intrinsic ones have an effect on both our recognition and our recall (for obvious reasons). If I came up to you and said the word 'jam', you probably wouldn't have any idea what I was talking about (ignoring the fact that you don't know me and I'm in your house). But if I asked you what you ate the other day and gave you the hint 'strawberry', then you'd probably get it in one. Intrinsic contexts are the things we use when we're setting our password hints or setting up secret questions.

Last word

It's important to know what contexts are relevant to your learning. What are you trying to remember and why? For multiple choice questions, you only really need to recognise what's going on. But if you need to recall things, it's good to tie them into meaningful contexts. The more the better, and you won't likely forget. So, you've learned elaboration is the way to go when it comes to memory, now learn the 'magic number' of memory; the optimal number of things to try and remember at once. Or learn how not all learning comes down to how good your memory is. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.