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How Cues and Context Help Memory

How Cues and Context Help MemoryA new study sheds light on why we sometimes have difficulty recalling a name or an event if the setting is unfamiliar.

A team of researchers from the University of Toronto discovered the hippocampus, a brain region in the temporal lobe, is only involved when cues enable us to recall these rich memories.

“We used a technique called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) that allows us to identify brain regions engaged during specific types of mental processes,” said Melanie Cohn, lead author of the paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences at www.pnas.org.

In the first stage of the study, healthy young adults were exposed to pairings of oddly unrelated words, such as “alligator” and “chair,” and invited to learn them by putting them in the same sentence and so on.

Next, while being scanned in the fMRI, participants were shown a series of single words — some of which had been studied in the word pairings and some of which had not. Participants were asked to rate their memory for each word in terms of how confident they were that it was a word that they had studied earlier or not.

After each decision, participants were given a cue: the word was presented along with the word it was initially paired with. For about half of the familiar words, i.e., those that subjects recalled learning earlier, the pairing triggered rich detailed memories of the context — such as the sentence they had made up to include both words — in which the original pairing was learned. The fMRI scan showed hippocampus activity only when cues were used to retrieve memories.

“This study is important because it resolves a current debate on the role of the hippocampus in retrieving memories. Some have argued it is the strength of the memory that matters most in retrieval. We have shown it is actually context that activates the hippocampus,” explained Cohn.

The findings also have direct relevance to understanding the type of memory problems found in epilepsy or Alzheimer’s, diseases in which patients have suffered damage to the hippocampus.

“Being able to characterize specific types of memory loss will lead to development of better clinical measures for diagnosis and monitoring of temporal-lobe dysfunction,” she said.

Source: University of Toronto

How Cues and Context Help Memory

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2016). How Cues and Context Help Memory. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 18, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2009/12/14/how-cues-and-context-help-memory/10159.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 5 Jul 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 5 Jul 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.