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In an interview with Robert A. Bjork this article claims that it is easier to recall information where it occurred:

Similarly, studying in only one location is great as long as you’ll only be required to recall the information in the same location. If you want information to be accessible outside your dorm room, or office, or nook on the second floor of the library, Bjork recommends varying your study location. And again, these tips generalize.

How much of an effect does this have with:

  1. Memorizing random facts
  2. Recalling the details of an event that occurred at the location
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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The phenomenon you are referring to is called situated learning.

Recall of information from memory is facilitated by retrieval cues; the more retrieval cues you have, the easier it is to recall an item from memory. Location (and pictorial information information in general) is perhaps such an effective cue because of the amount of information that it construes. You might say that a picture has higher entropy relative to, e.g., a sound, in that a picture can be easily recalled yet it conveys much more. A room contains numerous details-- the placement of furniture, the color of the walls, the books on the shelf-- all of which may act as retrieval cues.

The reason these seemingly meaningless details are such helpful retrieval cues can be linked to the idea of Hebbian learning, which is often summarized by the mnemonic, "cells that fire together, wire together". When you study in a room, neurons are firing in response to stimuli in the room, while other neurons fire in response to the content you are learning. Thus, when you are again tested in that same room, the stimuli in the room fire the same neurons, which act as retrieval cues. If you study in a different location, you would have no retrieval cues-- which is why Bjork suggests varying your study location.

I would say that this has an effect on both memorizing random facts as well as events that happened in a particular location. However, events tend to be more memorable for a number of other reasons. For instance, they are experienced (rather than simply read off a page). There is some evidence that autobiographical memories are treated differently than semantic memories, both at the cognitive and neural level.

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According to the tradition expressed in a well documented (references at the end) popular science book about memory, Moonwalking with Einstein in which the author trains himself from zero to become the American memory champion, the memory palace technique (also known as the method of loci where loci is place in latin) is the one used by most competitive memory practitioners. It consists in recalling random facts (your question 1) by staging them into an imaginary location. Other aspects of the technique involve imagining an actor or agent in these places, but this element is used as a reminder for the type of information involved: the place itself is the key to memorising. Therefore the answer to question 2 is that details of an event are much easier to remember at the location where they occurred, when recalling this location.

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That is quite an interesting way of looking at the problem –  Casebash Jan 30 '12 at 13:07
    
Much appreciated, let me add that memory championships are mostly concerned with random facts: series of number, decks of playing cards, original free verse poems. Putting these elements 'in situation' to remember them is part of the challenge. Another characteristic is the salience of the enacted situation: gross (violent, or with sexual connotations, or both) scenes set in memory loci are better remembered than conventional ones. –  Vladtn Jan 30 '12 at 16:52

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