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Effects of Environmental Context

on Human Memory
Steven M. Smith

INTRODUCTION (such as a photo, a video, or a virtual reality

device), or an environment that is imagined.
Returning to a place after many years Environmental contexts have been defined
of absence can bring memories to mind operationally in many ways by various
that may have seemed to be long-lost. researchers, but central to the research that
Remembering experiences often begins will be considered here are the effects of
with remembering where we were when places in which experiences occur. Although
the events occurred. How do the envi- stimuli such as color, type font, mood state,
ronmental contexts of experiences affect and associated words can be elements of
what we learn and remember? And how episodic contexts, they are not places where
can an understanding of environmental experiences occur, nor do they reliably trig-
context-dependent memory be used to ben- ger mental representations of places the way
efit people? that pictures or movies do. This discussion
An environment refers to ones physi- will focus on places or environments associ-
cal surroundings, such as the immediately ated with events, and their effects on learn-
perceptible and navigable space in which ing and memory.
one is immersed. Whereas no individual The present chapter will review a long
object or stimulus should be considered an history of investigations of effects of envi-
environment, they are nonetheless parts of ronmental contexts on memory, examining
environments, and collections of objects a variety of operational definitions of envi-
and stimuli can make up important ele- ronmental contexts. Theoretical treatments
ments of environments. The environment of contextual influences on memory will
in which ones experiences occur, or more be discussed, and some applied uses of
precisely, ones mental representation of context cues will be described, primarily
that environment is an environmental con- in terms of education, aging, clinical appli-
text, a representation of a place that can be cations, and eyewitness memory. Finally,
instantiated by an environment that is physi- some as-yet-unanswered questions about
cally present, one that is remembered, one environmental context and memory will be
that is cued or suggested by various stimuli discussed.

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HISTORICAL OVERVIEW: from the way it had been at learning, relative

EXPERIMENTAL STUDIES OF to the originally oriented maze. Even more
ENVIRONMENTAL CONTEXT AND surprising was the finding that shifts in the
HUMAN MEMORY orientation of the learned maze relative to
the laboratory had detrimental effects even
The past hundred years of experimental on blind rats whose eyes had been surgically
psychology research has produced a steady removed. Clearly, these pitiful creatures had
trickle of studies that have examined, some- learned about some subtle environmental
times in colorful and imaginative ways, the features that became part of their maze-
effects of environmental contexts on mem- learning, and alterations in those features at
ory. If an environmental context is a mental test disrupted their memories.
representation, then how can environmental The finding that changes in environmental
context be defined operationally? Through- cues that were incidental to learned tasks
out the long history of studies of context- (e.g., maze-running) had detrimental effects
dependent memory there has never been a on retention were reported for other animals
consensus of opinion with regards to this observed in the laboratory, such as spar-
subject. Historically, operational definitions rows (Porter, 1906) and pigeons (Hunter,
have tended to center around global types 1911). Other types of changes in incidental
of context, that is, contexts that are com- environmental contexts, such as changes in
mon to entire episodes of events, although the ambient illumination, the position of the
there have been notable exceptions (e.g., experimenter relative to the maze, or rotation
Dulsky, 1935; Pan, 1926). The initial studies of a canvas top of the maze that had one side
of context-dependent memory began with open, also had detrimental effects of retention
non-human animals, an area of research that (Carr, 1917). Carr summarized these studies
is burgeoning a century later, but interest by stating, Any sensorimotor act cannot be
quickly turned to studies of humans. After a regarded as an isolated independent func-
brief description of a few of the early stud- tion; the act was learned within a wider
ies with non-human animals, there will be sensory environment, and it never ceases to
an historical review of twentieth-century be wholly free from those conditions either
research on environmental context effects on during or after its development (p. 291).
human memory. Since those early experiments, a great deal
of research has studied and explicated the
effects of environmental contexts on learning
Early studies with non-human and memory, including effects on generaliza-
animals tion, extinction, and renewal (recovery of
extinguished learning) in laboratory animals
Some of the earliest of the reported experi- (e.g., Balsam & Tomie, 1985; Bouton, 1991,
ments were those done by John B. Watson 1993; Fanselow, 1990; Riccio, Richardson,
(1907), who studied maze-learning in labo- & Ebner, 1984; Spear, 1979).
ratory rats that had learned an experimental
maze, and were given retention trials with
the maze oriented in the lab the same way Twentieth-century studies
as it had been during learning trials, or
with humans
oriented in different directions in the same
lab. Although negotiating the maze involved Experiments examining the effects of envi-
the same learned sequence of turns in the ronmental context on human memory began
different treatment conditions, Watson was not long after the first reports with non-
quite surprised to find worse performance human subjects. Smith and Guthrie (1921)
for those whose maze orientation was altered described two unpublished experiments by

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W. R. Wilson that studied environmental had been present during the corresponding
context-dependent memory in humans. The lecture, were worst when both room and
first involved learning four sequences of ten instructor changed with intermediate perfor-
nonsense syllables; two lists were learned mance if only one element changed. These
inside a laboratory, and two were learned very early studies, which used rooms, out-
out of doors. Relearning of the four lists was door environments, instructors, audiences,
done 72 hours later, half in the laboratory, and odors to operationally define global
and half out of doors. Thus, two lists were contexts, supported findings of global envi-
relearned in the same environmental context ronmental context-dependent memory seen
in which they had been originally studied, in non-human animals. Since this work,
and two were tested in altered environmental an array of manipulations has been used to
contexts. Smith and Guthrie (1921, p. 112) operationally define environmental contexts
stated, in studies of humans involving global con-
In eight of the ten subjects there was greater
texts, including radically different rooms
saving in each case where relearning occurred in (e.g., Smith, Glenberg, & Bjork, 1978),
the same surroundings in which the first learning aquatic vs. dry environments (Godden &
had taken place. Two subjects showed in one of Baddeley, 1975, 1980), and a dry lounge
their four series a greater saving where relearning vs. a quiet dark flotation tank designed for
had occurred under dissimilar conditions.
sensory deprivation experiments (Smith
In the second experiment the odor of oil & Sinha, 1987). Another approach has been
of peppermint, versus an absence of the to manipulate a single prominent feature of
odor was used to operationally define envi- an environment, such as a noticeable odor
ronmental contexts. That experiment again (e.g., Cann & Ross, 1989) or background
showed context-dependent memory effects music (e.g., Balch, Bowman, & Mohler,
in relearning, using a typing task to assess 1992; Smith, 1985). Each of these types of
learning and retention. Thus, these two global environmental contexts has been used
experiments, which manipulated global envi- to demonstrate context reinstatement effects.
ronmental contexts (i.e., each context cor- Bilodeau and Schlosberg (1951) examined
responded to an entire target list of items) in context-dependent interference reduction,
very different ways, both found that unfamil- rather than reinstatement effects. The basic
iar materials were better remembered when idea behind interference reduction experi-
study contexts were reinstated, a finding now ments is that interference-based forgetting,
referred to as a context reinstatement effect. such as retroactive and proactive interfer-
Other early experiments of global con- ence, may depend on the environmental
text-dependent memory in humans included contexts of original and interpolated learn-
a study by Burri (1931), who used the ing sessions. They, hypothesized that mate-
presence or absence of a small audience rial learned in one environmental context
to operationally define environmental con- should only minimally interfere with mate-
texts. Burri found that paired associates rial learned in a different context, relative to
were better recalled and relearned when the learning both original and interpolated mate-
study environmental context, in the form of rial in a single context. The first reported
an audience vs. no audience, was reinstated test of this interference reduction hypothesis
at test. A study by Abernethy (1940) used (Nagge, 1935) failed to show the effect when
combinations of two factors, classroom and laboratory rooms were used as environmen-
instructor, to operationally define global tal contexts. Bilodeau and Schlosberg (1951),
environmental contexts in a classroom study however, noted that in Nagges experiment,
of exam scores. Exam scores were high- both the original and interpolated lists of
est when students were tested in the same syllables were presented with the same type
classroom and with the same instructor that of apparatus, a memory drum, making the

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contexts, from the subjects perspective, contexts one has experienced, and to use the
highly similar. Bilodeau and Schlosberg mentally reinstated contexts as memory cues
(1951), therefore, covaried the apparatus for events that occurred in those contexts.
and modes of stimulus presentation with Subjects tested in unfamiliar surroundings,
the more general features of global envi- who were instructed to imagine their study
ronmental contexts, and their study was the environmental contexts, were able to recall
first to report context-dependent interference as many critical list words as those whose
reduction effects. Others, using variations study environments were physically rein-
of their methods, have also reported inter- stated. This mental reinstatement of physi-
ference reduction effects (e.g., Greenspoon cal environmental contexts was found to be
& Ranyard, 1957; Strand, 1970), a reliable less effective when the use of many similar
effect, according to a meta-analysis (Smith study contexts made the appropriate study
& Vela, 2001). It is not clear what aspects environment difficult to remember. These
or elements of environmental contexts must findings also show that assessing the effects
vary for subjects to perceive them as quali- of environmental manipulations, at least for
tatively different, but researchers should human subjects, is complicated by partici-
be advised that the apparatus and stimulus pants differential tendencies and abilities to
modality may serve as important elements in mentally manipulate their own environments
a subjects perceptions and mental represen- through the power of imagination. Effects of
tations of environmental contexts. mental reinstatement of context are central to
Just as the necessary and sufficient ele- an important application of context effects,
ments of environmental contexts are not eyewitness memory, which will be consid-
clearly understood, it is also the case that ered later in this chapter.
context reinstatement is possible even in the Failures to find effects of environmental
absence of appropriate environmental stim- context manipulations on memory have been
uli. Smith (1979) showed that it is not always reported almost since the time that the first
necessary to physically reinstate the environ- positive findings were reported in the early
mental context of events in order to stimu- twentieth century. For example, Reed (1931)
late memory of those events. Rather, it is found that posture (i.e., sitting vs. standing up),
possible to mentally reinstate environmental manipulated as a contextual cue at learning

Godden & Baddeley Godden & Baddeley

(1975): Recall (1980): Recognition
1 1
0.9 0.9
0.8 0.8
0.7 0.7
0.6 0.6
0.5 0.5
0.4 0.4
0.3 0.3
0.2 0.2
0.1 0.1
0 0
Same Context Different Context Same Context Different Context

Figure 10.1 Godden and Baddeley (1975) found a significant context effect for recall, but
Godden and Baddeley (1980) found no effect for recognition memory.

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and at test, had no effect on recall. Giving conditions for producing robust environmen-
final exams to students in various psychol- tal context reinstatement effects.
ogy classes either in their regular classroom Smith and Vela (2001) conducted a meta-
vs. in an unfamiliar room, Farnsworth (1934) analysis that reviewed nearly a century of
reported finding no effect of the test room. research on the effects of global manipula-
As already noted, Nagge (1935) found no tions of incidental environmental contexts
interference reduction effect using rooms on human memory. Across 93 effect sizes
as contexts. A null effect reported by Smith calculated from 75 experiments reported in
et al. (1978) appeared to have found the key 41 published articles the average effect size
to what moderates environmental context- was d = .28, a modest but reliable effect.
dependent memory effects; this study noted Smith and Vela also identified moderating
that although robust effects were found when factors, which had a reliable influence on the
a free recall test was given, no effect was magnitude of context effects. For example,
found on recognition memory tests. A short larger effect sizes were found for studies that
time later, Godden and Baddeley (1980) con- used longer delays prior to testing memory.
firmed this hypothesis; the context-dependent One of the most revealing findings of that
memory effect they had previously reported meta-analysis separated experiments based
for scuba divers taking a recall test (Godden on the degree of inter-item associative pro-
& Baddeley, 1975) was not found when a cessing of memory targets that was encour-
recognition memory test was used to assess aged at study; those that clearly encouraged
retention. non-associative processing at study produced
The subject was further confused when a mean effect size of d = .33, whereas those
Saufley, Otaka and Bavaresco (1985) that encouraged associative encoding aver-
reported repeated failures to find environ- aged d = .13, a significantly smaller effect.
mental context-dependent memory in several Interestingly, significant positive effects
experiments involving class exams in dif- were found for both recall and recognition,
ferent rooms, and Fernandez and Glenberg indicating that finding incidental environ-
(1985) reported several experiments in which mental context-dependent memory effects
recall of word lists was not affected by room depends on principles that were less obvious
manipulations. These failures, and others, than the type of memory test used. These
showed clearly that changing rooms and principles, or our best understanding of them,
testing memory are not sufficiently specified will be discussed later in this chapter.

Smith et al. (1978): Smith et al. (1978):

Recall Recognition Hits
1 1
0.9 0.9
0.8 0.8
0.7 0.7
0.6 0.6
0.5 0.5
0.4 0.4
0.3 0.3
0.2 0.2
0.1 0.1
0 0
Same Context Different Context Same Context Different Context

Figure 10.2 Smith et al. (1978) found a significant context effect for recall, but not for
recognition memory.

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Pan (1926) manipulated different types of paired with those faces, and half were tested
contextual stimuli that accompanied a list of with new pictorial contexts. Pan found a
studied word pairs, including context words substantial difference in recall between the
printed above and below the memory tar- two conditions; names tested with the cor-
gets, context numbers, or no contexts. Most responding faces in their originally stud-
interesting, however, was Pans experiment ied contexts were recalled at a 20 percent
in which subjects studied a list of 24 pic- greater rate than those tested with new
tures of male and female faces, each paired pictorial contexts, a classic context reinstate-
with an unfamiliar name; recall of the name ment effect. Pan also found that changing
paired with each face was tested 48 hours contexts caused more forgetting for material
later. At study, each facename pair was in the early stages of learning, as compared
placed on a different picture postcard, and with better learned material. Pans study
on each card was a picture of a park, build- bore a remarkable resemblance to modern
ing, statue, or a similar type of public place studies of environmental context-dependent
in the city of Chicago. At test, a duplicate memory, foreshadowing experimental meth-
set of cards with faces but no names was ods used many decades later.
shown, and subjects tried to recall the name Although Pans stimulus materials were
associated with each face. On the recall local in the sense that each target item was
test, half of the faces were shown with the paired with a single picture postcard, they
same pictorial contexts that were originally were nonetheless environmental contexts in

Figure 10.3 Smith and Manzano (2010) used as contextual stimuli 5-second videotaped
scenes of places. Verbal stimuli for participants to learn were shown superimposed over the
video contexts.

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the sense that each photo was a representa- Godden and Baddeley (1975, 1980), who
tion of a physical environment. Thus, each used dry docks vs. underwater for differ-
postcard served as a cue for a mental repre- ent environmental contexts. For example,
sentation of an environment. Physical envi- Thompson, Williams, LEsperance, and Cor-
ronments clearly serve the same function, nelius (2001), using experienced skydivers
with respect to human representations of as participants, had a list of words studied
environments. Environmental contexts need either on the ground or in the air while
not be global; local environments can serve skydiving, and had participants recall words
the same function, supporting mental repre- either in the study context or in the other
sentations of environments, whether those context. They observed an effect, but perfor-
contexts become associated with one or mance was so poor for the skydiving condi-
many events. This idea will be discussed later tions that conditions involving watching
in terms of cue overload or fan effects. videotapes of skydiving, rather than actu-
Many studies of context effects have ally being in the air, increased the context-
varied elements of environments, but not dependent memory effect. Thompson et al.s
actual environments or representations of attempts to make environmental conditions
environments. Such studies varied elements as different as possible in the different
such as colors (e.g., Dulsky, 1935) or combi- treatment conditions fit with previous such
nations of colors and screen locations (e.g., attempts (e.g., Godden & Baddeley, 1975;
Murnane & Phelps, 1993; Wright & Shea, Smith et al., 1978; Smith & Sinha, 1987).
1991). Such studies that compare memory in radi-
cally different environments usually show
robust environmental context-dependent
memory effects, although poor performance
THE CURRENT STATE OF KNOWLEDGE in certain environments can cause the effects
FOR THEORY AND RESEARCH to be asymmetric.
A different approach has been to ask
We now turn to the current state of knowl- whether a change in some specific factor or
edge about environmental contexts effects environmental feature is sufficient for finding
on human memory. This discussion will an effect on memory. Keeping physical envi-
include methods that are currently used for ronments constant, some have varied the pres-
experimentally manipulating environmental ence or absence of one odor or another (e.g.,
contexts, theoretical principles such as the Aggleton & Waskett, 1999; Cann & Ross,
outshining hypothesis, the cue overload prin- 1989; Parker & Gellatly, 1997), the presence
ciple, and the roles of recollection and famil- of one musical piece or another (Balch et al.,
iarity in context-dependent memory, and 1992; Smith, 1985), the alteration of one fea-
context-dependent implicit memory. Also ture of background music (tempo vs. timbre,
discussed will be the neuroscience of con- Balch & Lewis, 1996), or the flavor of gum
textual memory, the effects of environmental being chewed (Baker, Bezance, Zellaby, &
contexts on early development and aging, Aggleton, 2004; Johnson & Miles, 2007,
and the role of context in clinical treatments. 2008). Some researchers have examined con-
text-dependence using independent manipu-
lations of specific factors, such as odor and
Methods for manipulating contexts music (Parker & Gellatly, 1997), or chewing
gum and flavor (Johnson & Miles, 2008).
One direction that experimental studies of Independent manipulations of room environ-
context-dependent memory have taken is to ments and a second factor, such as music
make the environments in question radically (Parker & Gellatly, 1997) or task (Isarida &
different from each other, in the tradition of Isarida, 1999), have also been studied.

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Currently, the predominant method for the effect of these contexts on recognition,
effectively manipulating environmental reporting that that the effects were greater
contexts in memory studies is the use of for more complex contexts than for simpler
artificial or virtual environments, such as ones, such as color backgrounds. All of these
pictures, computer screen configurations, studies have shown context-dependent dis-
video recordings, or virtual reality devices. crimination effects, that is, greater increases
Methods involved for computer-generated in hits than false alarms as a function of
environmental contexts were pioneered by reinstatement, although the mean differences
Murnane and Phelps (e.g., Murnane & Phelps, produced by these experiments have been
1993; Murnane, Phelps, & Malmberg, 1999), fairly small.
who used configurations of computer screen Particularly powerful effects of context
features, such as location, font color, and reinstatement were reported by Smith and
background color as contexts in most of their Manzano (2010), who used video-recorded
experiments. One experiment by Murnane et scenes as environmental contexts. The video
al. (1999) involved what they termed rich scenes were 5-second amateur movies of
visual contexts, which consisted of: places unfamiliar to the participants, but the
scenes showed familiar situations, includ-
pictures of scenes containing a focal object on
which it was sensible to display words. These ing, for example, movie clips from a crowd
included a television in a living room, a sign on outdoors at a college campus, diners at a
the side of a desert road, a banner trailing from delicatessen, and a soccer game. The scenes
an airplane, a delivery truck parked in front of a had movement, action, and sounds, making
building, and a chalkboard in a school classroom.
these video contexts multimodal. A single
(p. 409)
to-be-learned word was superimposed over
Eight word pairs were shown in associa- each video context. Smith and Manzano
tion with each pictorial context. The sim- tested free recall of the studied words, and
pler contexts that Murnane and Phelps used found reinstatement effects in which contex-
increased familiarity on a recognition test, tually cued recall levels were as much as 50
that familiarity simply increased both hits percent higher than the non-reinstated condi-
and false alarms, not contributing to an tion. Clearly, visually rich contexts can pro-
improvement in discriminating old from new duce reliable context cuing, and multimodal
words on a speeded recognition test. Rein- videos, which include dynamic sounds and
statement of the rich visual contexts used by actions, evoke particularly powerful effects.
Murnane et al., however, improved hits sig- Video contexts have also produced context-
nificantly more that it increased false alarms, dependent memory effects in paired associ-
what Murnane et al. (1999) termed context- ates recall (Smith, Handy, & Angello, 2010)
dependent discrimination. and recognition memory (Shahabuddin &
Others using digital representations of Smith, 2009).
environments include Hayes, Nadel, and A final issue about current methods for
Ryan (2007), who used pictures of visually manipulating contexts concerns the distinc-
rich scenes to study context-dependent rec- tion between an environmental contextual
ognition of previously seen objects, using stimulus and a generic associative stimu-
photos of scenes from inside of houses, lus. Although it seems likely that anyone
such as an object on a countertop or a would agree that a particular room or an
table. Hollingworth (2009) presented real- underwater setting would clearly qualify as
istic pictures of scenes, such as a kitchen or an environmental context, it is not as clear
a weightlifting room to test context effects that other operational definitions qualify as
on recognition. Hockley (2008) used as such. Although stimuli that represent envi-
contexts pictures of scenes of natural land- ronments, such as pictures of environments,
scapes, seascapes, and buildings to examine video-recordings of places, or virtual reality

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environments, can evoke varying degrees of or its distinctiveness, the focus of discus-
feelings of environmental immersion, they sion in regards to the outshining hypoth-
do so only in an indirect way that necessar- esis has been cue specificity; better cues
ily involves the participants projection of are those that better specify the associated
themselves into those virtual environments. target. For example, Smith (1986) showed
Does a typewritten word printed near a that the environmental context was a better
to-be-remembered word qualify as an envi- cue for a list of words when the encod-
ronmental context? Is a type font a type of ing task minimized the formation of more
environmental context? A face printed near specific inter-item associations among to-
a memory target? Some definitions stretch be-remembered words, a pattern that was
the limits of what seems like an environ- replicated in the overall meta-analysis by
ment, and reduce the definition of an envi- Smith and Vela (1992) discussed above.
ronmental context to include any associated Consequently, Smith and Vela (1992) tested
material whatsoever. Future research must recognition memory for a single person who
struggle with this concept if we are to have had staged a live event, thereby preclud-
a consensus about what is vs. is not truly an ing the encoding of inter-item associations
environmental context. among memory targets. That study found
significant effects of environmental context
reinstatement on recognition of that one
Outshining and overshadowing person in a photo-spread, a finding consist-
ent with the cue-specificity version of the
Overshadowing of environmental context outshining hypothesis.
refers to a failure to encode environmental A test of the outshining hypothesis was
material because ones limited attention is reported by McDaniel, Anderson, Einstein,
devoted to other information at encoding. and OHalloran (1989). In several experi-
Outshining, a similar phenomenon, refers to ments they tested the influence of vari-
a failure at test to use environmental cues, ous encoding strategies on environmental
even if they have been encoded. Although context-dependent memory, using dissimilar
these principles were originally used to rooms to manipulate environmental contexts
explain early failures to find environmental at test. The encoding strategies involved
reinstatement effects with typical recogni- encoding sentences by forming (vs. not
tion tests (e.g., Godden & Baddeley, 1980; forming) mental images in various ways,
Jacoby, 1983; Smith et al., 1978), subsequent by using (vs. not using) a self-referential
findings of context effects in recognition encoding strategy, or by organizing (vs. not
(e.g., Dalton, 1993; Krafka & Penrod, 1985; organizing) groups of target sentences. Each
Smith & Vela, 1992) showed that the type of of these strategies encouraged the encod-
test was not the key to explaining findings ing of effective mnemonic cues, including
vs. failures of context effects. Nonetheless, visual images, inter-item associations, or the
outshining and overshadowing have been participants selves. McDaniel et al. (1989)
supported by research showing that contex- found that conditions that promoted the elab-
tual information may not be encoded or used orative encoding of effective non-contextual
at test when non-contextual material is given cues were least likely to find effects of envi-
greater attention. ronmental reinstatement, whereas encoding
What determines whether one cue or tasks that did not involve visual imagery,
another is better or worse for evoking a inter-item organization, or self-reference
specific episodic memory? Although there were most likely to show the effect of envi-
are numerous factors that can determine the ronmental context on memory. These results
effectiveness of a particular memory cue, are consistent with the outshining hypothesis,
such as the integration of a cue with its target, that global, incidental environmental context

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cues are less effective when better memory should, therefore, be a less effective memory
cues are present at test. cue than a local context that has only a few
Both the overshadowing and outshin- associated targets. Thus, an outshining effect
ing effects described here emerge from an should be observed if an overloaded environ-
embodied cognition perspective, that is, the mental context cue is accompanied by better
notion that human memory stems from a cues that are less overloaded. Contexts with
need to maintain mental representations of fewer associated memory targets should be
currently experienced environments (e.g., less susceptible to outshining effects, and
Glenberg, 1997). This embodied view posits should therefore show a greater likelihood of
that both perceptual and memory systems producing context reinstatement effects.
share the same cognitive resources to manage The interaction of environmental con-
current environmental stimuli. People dis- text manipulations with fan size has been
engage their perceptual processing of envi- tested by several studies. Examining context-
ronmental stimuli in order to make cognitive dependent recognition as a function of one
resources available for memory and other vs. three different presentation backgrounds,
conceptual processes. For example, Glenberg, Rutherford (2004) found that reinstatement
Schroeder, and Robertson (1998) found that in the three-contexts condition (i.e., the less
remembering was improved when partici- overloaded cue condition) exerted a greater
pants in their study averted their gaze from effect than did the one-context condition (i.e.,
their environment. Perfect et al. (2008) the more overloaded context cue). The rein-
found that instructing eyewitnesses to close statement effects that Rutherford reported,
their eyes while remembering either a vide- however, were quite small even in the less
otaped or a live/staged event resulted in overloaded condition. A similar study by
better memory for detail of the witnessed Isarida, Isarida, and Okamoto (2005) com-
events. In these studies, suppressing process- pared two vs. six color-contexts, and found
ing of their immediate environment allowed that less overloaded color-contexts led to a
people to devote more of their shared pool greater reinstatement effects in recognition.
of cognitive resources to difficult memory A more dramatic interaction of context
tasks. Therefore, when encoding or recollec- reinstatement with fan size was reported by
tion focuses on interitem associations among Smith and Manzano (2010), who used one
members of a memorized list, processing of vs. three vs. fifteen target words per video
the immediate environment is diminished, context, and measured the effect of context
resulting in smaller effects of the environment reinstatement on recall. Smith and Manzano
on encoding and retrieval. found a significant context-reinstatement
effect even for the most overloaded condition
Cue overload/fan effects in which there were fifteen words per video
One version of the outshining principle context, with an effect size of d = 1.00. For
relates to the cue overload effect (e.g., Wat- the smaller fan size of three words per con-
kins & Watkins, 1975), also known as the text the effect was even greater (d = 2.18),
fan effect (Anderson, 1974). The principle and for the smallest fan size, the magnitude
that explains cue overload and fan effects of the effect of video context reinstatement
is the idea that a memory is more likely on recall was remarkable (d = 3.02).
to be evoked by an associated cue that has
fewer competing targets, and retrieval of Recollection and familiarity
that particular memory target becomes less Recollection and familiarity are the two
likely the more overloaded the cue is with terms commonly used to denote qualitatively
memory targets (or the greater the size of different memory processes. Familiarity
that cues fan). A global environmental con- refers to a rapid cognitive process, the result
text with many associated memory targets of which is a graded impression of a previous

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0.7 Reinstated
Proportion Recalled





15 Words 3 Words 1 Word
Number of Words per Video Context

Figure 10.5 Mean proportions recalled as a function of test scene reinstatement and
number of words per scene (from Smith & Manzano, 2010).

experience. One can know very quickly Murnane and Phelps results clearly favors
whether an object or face or name is familiar a familiarity explanation; that is, previously
or novel, even if that feeling of familiar- experienced contexts seen at test increase
ity produces no memorial content beyond the global familiarity of both new and old
the strength of the feeling of familiarity. In test items.
contrast, recollection is a slower memory Other attempts at dissociating the effects
process, one that brings to mind additional of context manipulations on familiarity vs.
content, such as associated material, or the recollection in recognition have been pub-
contextual elements that are bound to a lished. For example, Macken (2002) used a
memory. Respecification of the context or rememberknow paradigm, and found that
source of a remembered event is one way context-dependent discrimination was found
to define recollection. Which of these two only for remember judgments, and not for
memory processes, familiarity or recollec- know responses. Hockley (2008) likewise
tion, is affected by environmental contexts? found that words presented on a recognition
Murnane and Phelps (e.g., 1993) studied test showed a context-dependent discrimina-
the effects of visually simple screen con- tion effect, but only when target words had
texts on recognition memory judgments. been intentionally encoded in association
In their experiments, participants typically with their study contexts. Again, these effects
were required to give yes-no recognition occurred only for remember responses, and
responses within a few seconds of memory not for know responses. Hockley pointed out
prompts. These experiments reported numer- that the same pattern is seen in any associa-
ous findings of context-dependent recogni- tive recognition task, in which recollection
tion, defined by the authors as increases in plays an important role.
hits and false alarms as a function of context Given that visually simple previously
reinstatement at test. These effects were dis- viewed contexts merely increase the judged
tinguished from context-dependent discrimi- familiarity of items on a recognition test,
nation effects, which they defined as cases and that context-dependent discrimination
in which context reinstatement increased effects in recognition are found only when
hits more than false alarms. The pattern of items are intentionally associated with their

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study contexts, or when contexts are visually test, but the effect was confined to test-
rich, it seems safe to conclude that recol- aware participants, as identified on a post-
lection must be involved when test contexts test questionnaire. In sum, it appears that
evoke memories of events or items that were the pattern of findings for environmental
encoded in those contexts. A sense of famili- context-dependent implicit memory can be
arity can be evoked by familiar contexts on a explained by the degree that explicit recol-
recognition test, but such familiarity does not lection was used at the time of the test. This
appear to impart the ability to discriminate conclusion is consistent with findings that
new test items from old ones. show that context-dependent discrimination
Context-dependent implicit memory in recognition testing is due to the role of
experiments might also be explained by dis- recollection.
tinguishing the roles of unconscious familiar- Familiarity as a memory process may
ity and conscious recollection on the memory have little to do with contextually evoked
test. Several failures to find effects of envi- memories, but the familiarity of studied
ronmental contexts on implicit memory tests material may be an important factor in the
have been reported. Jacoby (1983) found dependence of memory on environmental
no effects of room manipulations on per- context. Pan (1926) was the first to directly
ceptual recognition, a primarily data-driven examine this hypothesis. Using paired asso-
implicit memory task. Parker, Gellatly, and ciates recall, Pan reported that the detri-
Waterman (1999) also found no effects of mental effect of a new context at recall was
environmental context manipulations on inversely related to the degree of learning,
implicit memory tests that are considered indicating that the least familiar (or poorest
to be primarily perceptually-driven, word learned) was the most susceptible to context-
fragment completion and anagram solution. dependent forgetting. Dalton (1993), who
Using indoors vs. outdoors as environmental examined the effects of room contexts on
contexts, McKone and French (2001) found face recognition, found that context changes
context-dependence on an explicit stem-cued impaired recognition only for unfamiliar
recall test, but not when stem-cued recall faces, and not for faces that participants had
was used as an implicit test. Other stud- seen before the study phase of the experi-
ies, however, have found significant effects ment. Russo, Ward, Guerts, and Scheres
of environmental manipulations on implicit (1999) replicated Daltons findings, showing
memory tests. Smith, Heath, and Vela (1990) that reinstated room contexts caused recogni-
found such effects on an implicit homophone tion discrimination effects for both faces and
spelling test. Likewise, Parker et al. (1999) for words.
found that implicit memory tests that are pri-
marily conceptually driven, namely, category
generation and general knowledge questions,
did show effects of room manipulations. APPLICATIONS OF ENVIRONMENTAL
Do environmental context manipulations CONTEXT EFFECTS ON MEMORY
influence implicit memory? Parker, Dagnall,
and Coyle (2007) replicated Parker et al.s Eyewitness memory
(1999) context-dependent effect with a con-
ceptually driven implicit memory test, but An important application of environmental
they showed that when participants who context-dependent memory effects, and the
claimed to have used explicit memory strate- most researched one, concerns methods for
gies on the test were weeded out, the effect enhancing eyewitness memory. Smith and
disappeared. Likewise, Mulligan (2011) Vela (1992) showed that eyewitnesses abil-
found environmental context-dependent ity to identify the actor of an unexpected
effects on an implicit category production staged event was better if the witnesses

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were returned to the environment where Development and aging

the event was staged. Krafka and Penrod
(1985), using a combination of physical Infancy and childhood
and mental context reinstatement conditions, Effects of environmental context on human
showed that convenience store clerks were memory have been studied primarily using
better at identifying a previously encoun- college-aged adults, but there have also been
tered customer. Using a guided memory studies of context-dependence in infants and
method that involved mental reinstatement in elderly adults. Carolyn Rovee-Collier and
of context plus some details of a witnessed her colleagues pioneered the study of context
incident, Malpass and Devine (1981) found effects on long-term memory in infants (e.g.,
that witnesses were better at identifying Borovsky & Rovee-Collier, 1990; Butler &
the actors of a staged vandalism with the Rovee-Collier, 1989; Hayne, Greco-Vigorito,
guided memory enhancement, relative to & Rovee-Collier, 1993; Hayne, Rovee-Col-
a control condition that had no context lier & Borza, 1991). These studies typically
reinstatement. The effectiveness of mental use an operant conditioning paradigm in
reinstatement of contexts led to its incorpo- which, for example, a string connects the
ration in a procedure known as the cognitive supine infants foot to an overhead mobile,
interview, which is widely used to enhance and the infant learns to kick that foot to
the memories of eyewitnesses (e.g., Fisher, move the mobile, a rewarding outcome. As
Schreiber Compo, Rivard, & Hirn, Chapter environmental contexts, crib bumper pads
31, this volume; Fisher & Geiselman, 1992; with very different patterns, or different
Geiselman, Fisher, MacKinnon, & Holland, rooms in the infants home are manipulated.
1985). A typical finding is that a change in context
impairs recognition after three to five days
(e.g., Butler & Rovee-Collier, 1989; Rovee-
Collier, Griesler, & Earley, 1985). These con-
Neuroscience of context
text effects are quite robust, even for infants
The nature of contextual binding and its role younger than 8 months of age (see Rovee-
in episodic memory has been an issue of great Collier & Hartshorn, 1999), and clearly
interest. One focus of research investigations reject the idea that learning and memory dur-
has been the roles of various brain regions, ing infancy is context-independent because
particularly the ventromedial prefrontal cor- of immature hippocampal formation in such
tex and the mediotemporal (hippocampal, young infants.
parahippocampal, and perirhinal) cortex, in Although there have been few studies
the episodic binding of events, objects, and of effects of environmental context during
contexts (e.g., Ciaramelli & Spaniol, 2009; childhood beyond infancy, context-depend-
Davachi, 2006; Diana, Yonelinas, & Ranga- ent memory was examined in one impor-
nath, 2007; Hayes, Nadel, & Ryan, 2007). tant study of school-aged children. Jensen,
These studies show how medial temporal Harris, and Anderson (1971) examined a
lobe structures are critically important in epi- large sample of children in grades 2, 4, 6,
sodic memory formation, and that domain- 8, and 10, using a serial recall paradigm. A
general binding mechanisms are supported list of eight nonsense syllables was studied
by the hippocampus, and domain-specific in one room, and 24 hours later students
mechanisms exist within the perirhinal and were given a retention test, either in the
parahippocampal cortices (Davachi, 2006). same environmental context where learning
Thus, the role of environmental context had occurred, or in a very different school-
effects in the treatment of patients with room. Jensen et al. (1971) predicted that the
medial temporal disorders may have some environmental manipulations would affect
applied value. retention more for younger children than for

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older ones, based on the idea that older but binding deficits that older adults show, one
not younger children would have learned to would expect that context reinstatement
ignore ambient contextual stimuli . However should have less of an effect for the elderly,
there was a reliable reinstatement effect that not more. The paradox is resolved, however,
was the same for all age levels. Thus, the by understanding that these binding deficits
dependence of memory on incidental envi- are in large part due to lack of initiative
ronmental contexts can be seen throughout to intentionally use contextual cues, both
childhood. at encoding and at test. Whereas younger
people tend to initiate intentional encoding of
Aging and context context and mental reinstatement of context
There has been great interest in aging and cues, older adults are more likely to do so
memory binding, that is, associative pro- only when they are instructed, or when per-
cesses that combine contexts with items and ceptual cues are provided that tend to initiate
events that occur in those contexts (e.g., such intentional strategies.
Howard, Kahana, & Wingfield, 2006; Kes-
sels, Hobbel, & Postma, 2007; Old & Naveh-
Benjamin, 2008; Park, Puglisi, & Sovacool, Clinical applications
1984). In a meta-analysis, Spencer and Raz
(1995) found support for the theory that There have been numerous studies relating
aging is associated with deficits in terms of psychological disorders to contextual bind-
binding experiences with their contexts; they ing, such as deficient contextual binding
concluded that age-related memory deficits in schizophrenics (e.g., Badcock, Chhabra,
are reliably greater in memory for contex- Maybery, & Paulik, 2008; Lamy, Goshon-
tual information than for content. The brain Kosover, Harari, Levkovitz, & Aviani, 2008;
mechanisms implicated in these age-related McClure, Barch, Flory, Harvey, & Siever,
memory deficits include the medial tempo- 2008; Talamini & Meeter, 2009); these stud-
ral/hippocampal region, which binds events ies show context processing deficits specific
into memory traces via temporal contiguity, to schizophrenia. Patients with depression
and functions somewhat automatically for have also been studied with respect to
consciously attended materials. The frontal contextual binding (e.g., Balardin et al.,
lobes, which direct strategic information 2009; Barch, Yodkovik, Sypher-Locke, &
processing in an effortful manner, are also Hanewinkel, 2008; Lamy et al., 2008; Lev-
implicated in age-related declines in contex- ens & Gotlib, 2009). For example, Lamy
tual binding (e.g., Old & Naveh-Benjamin, et al. (2008) found that implicit memory for
2008). spatial context was impaired in clinically
Paradoxically, elderly eyewitnesses show depressed patients, suggesting an implicit
greater performance gains than younger ones memory impairment for spatial context in
in terms of memory for details of a witnessed depression. Balardin et al. (2009) found mild
event with the use of the cognitive interview, depressive symptoms interfered with the
which relies heavily on mental reinstatement effects of context encoding instructions in
of context to enhance eyewitness memory, older adults.
as shown by a meta-analysis by Memon, A great deal of research has examined
Meissner, and Fraser (2010). This differ- the role of environmental context, in both
ential benefit for the elderly is explained humans and non-human animals, in the
by the contextual support hypothesis (e.g., acquisition and treatment of phobias and
Craik, 1994; Craik, Byrd, & Swanson, 1987), conditioned fear (e.g., Bouton & Bolles,
which states that older adults increasingly 1979; Bouton & Ricker, 1994; Brooks &
rely on environmental support for long-term Bouton, 1994; Culver, Stoyanova, & Craske,
memory cues. Given the well-established 2011). Fear conditioned to an environmental

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context, and extinguished in another context, for future research. A brief listing of a few
will return when the original context is rein- of the unanswered questions and promising
stated (e.g., Bouton & Bolles, 1979). Clinical directions for research follows.
treatment of fear, such as exposure therapy, We do not know enough about remember-
also can be dependent on the treatment con- ing contexts. In most published research, con-
text; human participants treated for fear of texts have been viewed as cues for accessing
spiders were less fearful when they returned other material, whereas source memory has
to the treatment context, as compared with been thought of as a means of differentiating
those tested in a new context (e.g., Mineka, one episodic memory from another. Generally,
Mystkowski, Hladek, & Rodriguez, 1999). in contextual cuing, one is given (or not given)
Instructions to mentally reinstate the treat- a cue to determine its effect on produc-
ment context likewise reduce fear in phobics ing associated content. In studies of source
who have received treatment (Mystkowski, memory, the associated source material must
Craske, Echiverri, & Labus, 2006). be retrieved to assess something about already
accessed content. These two areas of research
need to be better integrated, since they seem
Educational applications to be two sides of the same coin. If a physi-
cal cue is withheld, does the rememberer
The applied use of environmental context think to recall contexts as a way of recalling
cues in education and learning is not clear. events? If source is difficult to access, what
On the one hand, exam scores for students are the effects of source reinstatement? Starns
tested in their regular lecture hall vs. in a and Hicks (2008) examined binding of item
different classroom usually do not show and context, and compared that with binding
effects of the test environment (Saufley, among different types of context informa-
Otaka, & Bavaresco, 1985, but see Aber- tion to see, for example, if reinstating object
nethy, 1940). On the other hand, it is not information increased recognition memory
at all clear whether students learn the bulk for contextual attributes, and whether par-
of exam material in the classroom, or else- ticipants could distinguish between intact and
where, such as a study place in the library or recombined pairings of object and contextual
at home. One unpublished study controlled information on an associative recognition test.
for study location (Mellgren, 1984), arrang- Such research combines two existing lines of
ing for extra study sessions either in the work, namely, contextual cuing and source
regular classroom (where the exam was sub- memory, and represents a promising direction
sequently given) or in a different classroom. for future research.
Extra study benefited all participants exam Another promising direction for future
scores, but more so for students whose extra research is the creation and study of artificial
study occurred in the test classroom. contexts. Published work has already shown
the efficacy of pictures and videorecordings
of environments for producing strong context
reinstatement effects. Virtual reality devices
IDENTIFICATION OF PROMISING may also provide powerful tools for creat-
AND IMPORTANT AREAS FOR ing realistic immersive and embodied envi-
FUTURE RESEARCH ronments. Such devices have already been
used to study both basic (e.g., Radvansky &
Although we have learned a great deal from Copeland, 2006) and applied (e.g., Garca-
a long history of research on the effects of Palacios, Hoffman, Carlin, Furness, &
environmental contexts on human memory, Botella, 2002) research questions. This area
there are many questions that remain unan- of research could lead to digital support tools
swered, and numerous promising directions that are useful in a number of ways, such as

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diagnosing or treating clinical disorders, or Are context cues privileged, that is, are
for enhancing learning and training. they automatically encoded, without the need
Decontextualization, that is, learning in for attentional resources? If so, is contextual
ways that do not depend on contextual cues, information automatically bound to events
is another promising direction for future and experiences? Automatic encoding and
research. Much semantic and conceptual binding of truly incidental environmental
knowledge can be optimally used if it does information would make contexts qualita-
not rely on specific contexts; how can such tively different from other types of stimuli.
decontextualized knowledge be acquired and If so, then neuroimaging might reveal mental
developed? This question touches on how representations of contexts that would be
episodic memories eventually give rise to distinguishable from the way the brain rep-
semantic memories (Tulving, 1972; Tulving, resents other types of associatively bound
1983). One of the first researchers of environ- information. Privileged material could be
mental context, Pan (1926), showed that well- particularly useful as mnemonic scaffold-
learned material was less context-dependent ing in education and training situations. In
than poorly learned material. Furthermore, addition, as previously noted, older adults
Smith and Rothkopf (1984) found some evi- failures to spontaneously use context cues
dence that varying contexts during learning can be remedied through instructions and
can benefit retention of classroom material. perceptually obvious cues; provision of con-
Future research should return to these early textual support could be an important tool for
findings to learn more about the process of addressing age-related memory deficits.
knowledge decontextualization, which could
be particularly important in terms of retain-
ing and transferring knowledge acquired
through education and training. CONCLUSION
Related to training and performance issues
is the home-field advantage, that is, the ben- Although many different operational def-
efit for individuals and teams in sport com- initions of context have been used to
petitions who are playing at their home field, manipulate and study the role of environ-
court, or stadium, relative to playing at the mental contexts in human memory, it can be
opposing teams field. This advantage is not a concluded that experiences tend to become
myth; teams consistently win over 50 percent associated with the environments in which
of the home games played under a balanced they occur, and that environmental contexts
home and away schedule (Courneya & Carron, can serve as retrieval cues for events that
1992). Researchers have identified several occurred in those contexts. Such context rein-
possible factors for the home-field advantage, statement effects have been observed in non-
including influences of the crowd (e.g., moti- human animals, infants, children, and adults.
vational support from spectators, influences Not only physical reinstatement of envi-
on referees), home rule factors, travel (e.g., ronments, but mental reinstatement of con-
jet lag), and familiarity. The importance of texts can also cause reinstatement effects.
familiarity has been examined in terms of how That is, imagining or thinking about envi-
recently a team has relocated, and differences ronments that are not physically present can
in playing surfaces (e.g., Pollard, 1986, 2002), cue memories associated with the imagined
but research has not focused on the role of contexts. Thus, it is not the physical environ-
environmental context-dependent memory. It ment, itself, that is bound to events, but rather
is conceivable that memory of training, spe- mental representations of environments that
cific skills, or planned plays could be affected are associated with mental representations
by environmental memory cues associated of events and experiences that occur in those
with home playing fields. contexts. This fact is one of the major reasons

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that experimental manipulations may not Aggleton, J. P., & Waskett, L. (1999). The ability of odours
have significant cuing effects; that is, those to serve as state-dependent cues for real-world
tested in new environments are not necessar- memories: can Viking smells aid the recall of Viking
ily confined to their test environments, but experiences? British Journal of Psychology, 90, 17.
Anderson, J. R. (1974). Retrieval of propositional
can use non-ambient cues to retrieve memo-
information from long-term memory. Cognitive
ries. The ability to mentally access non-ambi- Psychology, 6, 451474.
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human animals show such reliable effects of 45, 822827.
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& Bromberg, E. (2009). Contextual memory and
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