State Dependent Memory + Learning (Definition and Examples)

If you're here because you Googled "State Dependent Memory" and are wanting to learn more about this interesting new concept, you've came to the right place!

It’s no secret that alcohol can have a big effect on our memories. Too much alcohol can cause a “blackout,” in which our memories seem to be completely wiped forever. The only way you’ll have a clue about what happened on your big night out is if someone tells you. 

But did you know that some people can retrieve memories they made while they were drinking? 

This is just one of the wacky ways that state-dependent memory works in the brain. 

What Is State-Dependent Memory? 

State-dependent memory is a phenomenon that says that people are more likely to retrieve memories that were made in similar states of consciousness.

How does this happen? It has to do with the way that we “train” our brains. When we learn something new, we create a neural pathway that connects brain cells. The cells can then communicate, which helps us to recall information that we had learned as we created those pathways. 

If cells have been “trained” to communicate while our brains were in a specific state, they are more likely to communicate when we are back in that state. The cells recognize that the chemical conditions are the same now that we are drunk, using medication, etc., and will send out the communication necessary to recall memories. 

Context-Dependent Memory

State-dependent memory deals with a state of consciousness, but there are similar phenomena that sound like state-dependent memory. Context-dependent memory, for example, is the phenomenon in which memories can be retrieved if the person finds themselves in the same room as they were when they encoded the memory. External factors, like the room in which someone was in or smells that they took in at the time of encoding, play a role here.

Internal factors play a role in state-dependent memory. 

It’s Not Just Alcohol

The most commonly discussed studies on state-dependent memory have dealt with alcohol usage. If people were under the influence of alcohol while they encoded memories, they were more likely to recall those memories while under the influence of alcohol. 

But state-dependent memory involves more than just booze. Other substances, as well as other internal factors, can play a part in memory retrieval. 

In 2004, Iranian psychologists conducted a similar study on mice using morphine. Mice who learned tasks sober were more likely to recall the tasks while sober. Mice who learned the tasks while on morphine were more likely to recall the tasks while on morphine - and were more likely to forget the tasks when they were sober. 

States Without Substances

Other studies involving caffeine and Ritalin have also supported the idea of state-dependent memory. ​

However, people do not have to have controlled substances in their bodies to encode state-dependent memory. Researchers are continuing to look at how mood and internal pain may play a part in state-dependent memory. These theories are controversial, but it’s not hard to make the connection between how “training” the neural pathways in our brain could create these types of memories. The neurotransmitters that influence our mood also create the neural pathways in our brain. 

This information can help you when you’re studying for a test or trying to learn information for any reason. Pay attention to the state that you are in and the place you are located while you are learning. Will these factors help you or hold you back when you are trying to recall that information later?


Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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