Context is a version of pattern recognition. In writing, it is how words are woven together. It is the combination of all the word connections. In perception, context is finding yourself in relation to the world around you. It is how you, objects and places relate to each other. Context is the whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.
People are very good at tracking their environments. We collect lots of data on where we are, how close we are to objects and the spatial relationships between everything. We use this information to decide what to do in any given circumstance.
Context cues allow us to discriminate between a baseball field, a synagogue and our backyard patio. The cues tell us that this place feels like home and that place feels strange and uncomfortable.
As it turns out, we recall best when the encoding and decoding contexts are the same. If we learn in a quiet environment, we do best when we recall in a quiet environment. We entered the information with quiet cues, so it is easiest to retrieve them when those cues are present.
The general principle of matching learning and recall contexts is called the Encoding Specificity Principle. Endel Tulving, a Canadian psychologist, found that performance on cued recall of word lists was improved when the encoding and decoding contexts matched. If you learn a list in one location, you remember it best if you are in that location when you are given a cue to remember a particular word.
Tulving suggests that you need to be in “retrieval mode” during recall. You must be trying to use all the cues you have available to help you remember. If you know the material, you don’t need any cues. But if you’ve ever taken a class in a quiet room and find yourself looking around hoping an answer will pop into your head, you probably should not have studied with your music blaring.
In the 1970s, educators were freaking out. They were worried that students wouldn’t perform well if they didn’t take the test in the exact classroom they learned it in. What if you have to take the SATs in the cafeteria? What if learning it in school meant you couldn’t apply it in real life?
The Encoding Specificity Principle isn’t that exact. We do best when the contexts match, and less well when they are less similar, but that isn’t the whole story. It depends on the material you are learning and the way you test its recall.
In recognition tests, context and environment cues don’t help much. Since all the information you need is present on the test, you don’t need other cues as much. In free recall (remember them in any order), environmental cues are more helpful, particularly for episodic memories.
People who go back to the house they grew up in are often flooded with memories. Everything seems to rush back. It can be overwhelming when the home has the same lighting, furniture, smells and sounds. People experience this overload at class reunions, revisiting battlefields, and visiting a previous employer.
On a smaller scale, context clues help us learn. When reading a book, we might remember what is at the top of page 34. In a classroom, we might remember a point because the prof circled it with colored chalk. During a game, we find the home team advantage is our familiarity with the court.
Our senses provide us with both top-down and down-up processing. Down-up is inductive. We sense the world around us and build those sensations into complex patterns. We also use deductive reasoning to process things top-down. We look ahead to see what is coming our way.
It seems like every hunting season comes with a story of a tragedy or a near miss for shooting a fellow hunter. Typically, one hunter is stationary and the other drives the deer toward him for an easy kill. Unfortunately, the stationary hunter might shoot at movements in the bushes only to discover that he has wounded or killed his partner. If we expect to see deer, we see deer, even if they are dressed in orange.
The Stroop Effect is another good example of top-down processing. If I give you a list of colors all written in black, and ask you to read them aloud, you probably would have no difficulty doing so. If I give you a list of colors all written in their respective colors, you probably would have no difficult saying them aloud. If I give you list of colors written in the wrong colors and ask you to say the color they are written in (not the word but the color), you will find you’re quite slow at processing this information. Your brain recognizes them as words and wants to process them as words. This is top-down processing.
Similarly, if I show you an ambiguous item, you will use context to decide it if is a word or a number. Our brains actively look for words. We process words and numbers in different regions, so we look ahead to see what is coming our way. We decide if it is a b or a 13 depending on its context.
We use context to extract meaning when we read. When movie reviews or political ads take comments out of context, they misrepresent the statement because they have stripped it of its context.
In addition to all of the external cues, internal cues impact us too. In contrast to the external context-dependent cues (location, noise, music, wall colors, etc.), we also experience internal states, such as mood and pain. These internal factors are called state-dependent cues.
The Encoding Specificity Principle suggests that internal states can act as cues. In general, things that are emotional are more easily remembered. Advertisers and politicians often seek to make you feel something so you will remember their message better.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson was in a race again Barry Goldwater for the American Presidency. Johnson’s campaign ran a television ad called Daisy. It opens with a 3-year old in a field with chirping birds. She is counting until a male voice begins a ballistic missile countdown and an atomic bomb is exploded. Johnson’s voice never mentions Goldwater but the impression is that Goldwater will bring on a nuclear war and kill all of your children.
Not quite as dramatically, advertisers show people having fun while using their products. The context and subtext is that if you use their products you too will be good looking, have plenty of dates, become rich and relax on a warm beach.
Emotion impacts our recall. When you are happy, you remember best the things you learned when you were happy. When you are depressed, you remember all of the ways people have been mean to you in the past, how lousy your life currently is, and how bleak your future looks.
An obvious application of state-dependent learning is how drugs impact us. When you are on your prescribed drugs, the things you learn will be remembered in that state. But if you go off your bipolar medications, you are unlikely to remember the same material well. When you go back on your meds, you remember the original material again.
When sober, people are not always able to remember where they put their keys when they were drunk. Getting drunk to remember won’t help because alcohol inhibits the encoding process. You probably didn’t learn much when you were drunk. The memory systems weren’t fully engaged.
Internal states include human motivation. Are you trying to meet basic needs or is your mental state focused on belonging and self-actualization? Your goals, wants and needs are all part of your internal mental context. They too impact your learning.