Memory Retrieval: Types & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Have you ever struggled to remember something? Everyone has. In this lesson, we are going to talk about memory retrieval and look at some of the ways that our minds try to recover old information.

Memory Retrieval

Every now and then, everyone gets in one of those moods where you just feel like a trip down memory lane. The problem is that memory lane is less of a straight and narrow alley, and more of a jumbled interstate. There are multiple exits and entrances, some parts are under construction, some jerk is swerving through traffic, there's an unexpected delay up ahead and by the end of it you just may need paramedics. Memory lane's a rough place. Psychologists are well aware of this, which is why they've spent lots of time studying both the ways that we form and then retrieve memories. There's actually a long road a memory takes from when it is first formed, but understanding memory retrieval can help us bypass the obstacles and get that memory back to where we need it to be.

Forms of Memory Retrieval

Memory retrieval involves pulling information from the subconscious long-term memory banks and making it immediately accessible to the conscious mind. There are four primary ways that this is done. Memory recall describes the ability to simply pull information from your minds without extensive effort. When studying for a test, the goal is to remember information in a way that can be automatically and easily recalled. Recollection, on the other hand, involves the piecing together of a memory. Your mind is rebuilding that memory based on various clues, partial memories, and logic. Trying to remember your childhood birthday parties often involves this sort of memory retrieval.

Recognition describes memory retrieval based on experiencing that memory again. Imagine driving down the street and looking for a restaurant you once visited. You may not immediately recall its location, but you can recognize it when you see it. Finally, the mind can retrieve information through relearning. We've all had that moment of ''I used to know this!'' You may not be able to recall the information, but you know it's in there and therefore you remember it through learning it again.

Context-Dependent Memory

While memory recall is a simple ability to remember, the other forms of memory retrieval all require some sort of clues to get your mind on the right track. You need some sort of map or GPS to navigate memory lane. There are actually two ways to do this.

The first is through context-dependent memory. The theory is that memory retrieval can be improved by recreating the context in which the memory was formed. You've probably heard of this theory before in terms of test taking. Some people say that if you study in an environment similar to that in which you will take an exam, you are more likely to remember the information. So, if the classroom has poor lighting and a fan constantly running in the background, study somewhere with poor lighting and a fan. If you studied while wearing a ball cap, take the exam in that same ball cap.

Context-dependent memory relies on external conditions

Context-dependent memory theories try to improve the efficiency of memory retrieval by consciously creating clues that the mind can use to recollect, recognize, or relearn memories.

State-Dependent Memory

While context-dependent memories are all about the external, other people think you should focus on the internal. A state-dependent memory is one that is retrieved by recreating a person's state of consciousness. This theory is most commonly applied to the retrieval of memories created while a person had altered their state of consciousness through drugs or alcohol, but there are broader applications.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account