How Your Brain Works: State-Dependent Learning

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In a nutshell, you remember knowledge and skills better when you study them in the same environment and under the same conditions that you expect to perform them. This could include your location, the time of day, your state of mind, your state of health, the clothes you are wearing, your mood, and many other things. Of course, such preparation minimizes the chance of surprises that might throw us off our game, but there is an even deeper rationale for such preparation.

Remember that we have the capacity to learn both consciously and unconsciously. When we are immersed in any environment, there are countless numbers of things that lie beyond our conscious attention. And any number of these things have the potential to become unconsciously associated with the conscious behaviors we are practicing. Therefore, any of these things has the potential to become a memory trigger. So, if one of these memory triggers disappears when we move to another environment, there is a risk that our memories will suffer or fail completely.

Real-world examples of state-dependent learning in action are:

  • Sports team pre-season scrimmages.
  • Theater company dress rehearsals.
  • Final hour exam prep by psychology majors. Visit any upper-level college psychology class an hour before an exam and notice how many psych majors are studying in the very same classroom, with the same lighting and in the very same seat, in which they are about to take their test!

Implications for Students and Teachers

  • If you are preparing for a performance, you need to practice under enough different environments and conditions so that your behavior generalizes to all environments and conditions. If you can, play the same piece on different instruments.
  • If possible, you should practice in the very same environment you expect to perform in. In the case of a music performance, you should play the very same instrument, on the very same stage, with the very same lighting, while role-playing your entrance, in front of a real or imagined audience.

LEARN MORE… The Role of Emotion in Learning & Performance


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