State-Dependent Memory

K. Rocco Shields
Dec 6, 2023

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, education, and specifically, teaching methodology became a focus for many people who had never thought about it previously.  The role of the “teacher” was no longer left solely in the hands of the professionals.  Stay-at-home orders closed schools and put much of the responsibility for education on mothers and fathers and on the students themselves.   Individuals who had not given second thought to how learning occurs or how to properly teach a subject were dropped into a role they were not prepared for and were left wondering, “How do I get this information to stick?”

It is a belief of mine that your state of mind as a learner plays a major part in your ability to retain and remember information.  As a student, I found myself struggling at times with my studies, while succeeding at other times, and I often wondered why that was.  Being “distracted” was often a likely reason for my troubles, but I quickly realized that it was more than that.  Distractions in my life were a constant. What fluctuated, though, was my mood.  Later, as I was working and establishing myself and my company, Genius Produced, as a major creator of educational media, I became obsessed with the idea that emotions could impact memory and retention. I felt a certain  responsibility to investigate whether this was something that could be used to benefit the learning process and improve the media I was producing.  What I found was significant enough to impact the way I was approaching education and the way my company was doing business.  

It has long been theorized that if you pinpoint one’s emotional state at the moment where they learn a new fact or create a new memory, you will find a strong correlation between the quality of the emotion and the reliability or strength of the memory being committed.  To simplify the findings of Gordon H. Bower in his 1981 article “Mood and Memory”, happy people remember happy things; sad people remember sad things.  

It could be said that the problem with this line of thinking is that you are often dealing in judgments.  What is happy and what is sad?  Or, for that matter, what is fear? What is anger? What is disgust?  Emotions can be subjective interpretations of a particular, yet vague feeling or numbness felt internally, but it can also be a measurable, physiological condition.  Neural mapping of the limbic system has actually provided a neurobiological explanation of human emotion.  Essentially, it comes down to a pleasant or unpleasant mental state that is created and facilitated by the limbic system of the mammalian brain using neurochemicals, such as dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin to regulate the brain's activity level.  It makes sense then, that the functioning of the mind would be impacted by emotion, as it is actually creating a physical response within the brain and throughout the body.

It has long been theorized that if you pinpoint one’s emotional state at the moment where they learn a new fact or create a new memory, you will find a strong correlation between the quality of the emotion and the reliability or strength of the memory being committed. Despite the physical clues and patterns related to emotion, when considering measuring the magnitude of the impact on memory, researchers found that making observations based on emotion can be less precise than observing other quantifiable elements.  In response, a study was conducted on the effect of administering drugs such as alcohol or marijuana.  In doing so, they are able to artificially put participants in a similar mind-state for the sake of observation.  What was found was that when the pharmacological state changed from the moment of encoding to the moment of retrieval, their performance was also impaired on some tests, but overall, if the subject was in a sober state at both the time of encoding and at retrieval, they were best prepared to succeed.  These observations have led many to the conclusion that one’s internal state can serve as a memory cue.

With this information and motivation, I had to figure out how to apply it to the media my company was creating. How does one optimize their mood for learning? My research found that mood can be greatly tied to music and visual cues.  Music-dependent memory is tied to mood-dependent memory and suggests that a person’s moods can be affected by the tempo and composition of a musical piece.  One study found that the participants’ memory performance improved when there was no change in the tempo of the music they were listening to at the moment of encoding and at the moment of retrieval.  From this, I surmised that there was value in keeping consistency in tone and tempo for all stimulus involved in the learning process.  

From there, I considered other proven emotional ties and sensory cues that exist in media.  In Hollywood filmmaking, for example, the audience is led by the narrative and in a way, emotionally manipulated to digest the information in a desired manner.  This same methodology can and should be applied to educational media.  For companies like Genius Produced, this logic is fueling their efforts to bring learning into the future.  Bringing tried-and-true engagement techniques used in entertainment and other forms of media to the educational arena can capitalize on the brain’s natural tendencies.

What do you remember about what you remember?  Do you remember learning it and committing it to memory or do you just remember the lesson?   How did you feel? Were you bored? Thrilled? Scared?  And how do you feel now?  When approaching a student with a lesson, knowledge of their emotional state can be a valuable tool in helping to design educational approaches and content that not only informs, but also sets a tone for learning.  Companies and organizations in the education field, like Genius Academy, have found that use of multimedia educational assets, interactive learning objects, and narrative-based visual content, educators can help students tap into a reserve of cognitive ability they never knew they possessed. It is the preparation of the soil that allows the plant to grow, and it is the preparation of the learner’s mind that allows a memory to sprout.


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