State Dependent Learning

Psychological research has determined that physical, mental and emotional
states can affect people’s capacity for cognitive performance by affecting their
ability to recall learned information.  Research has shown that it is easiest for
people to recall information when they are in a state similar to the one in which
they initially learned the material.  This phenomenon is known as state
dependent learning.

Test results consistently confirm the existence of state dependent learning in
human and animal subjects.  People repeatedly report having difficulties,
whether minor or major, recalling information that they learned while in a different
state. The spelling of certain words, the details of a story or even the elements of
a photograph were hard for test subjects to remember once their state changed.
Once they were back in the state in which the learning took place, whether they
arrived there through alcohol consumption, drug ingestion, or emotional
stimulation, the subjects were able to correctly recall what they had learned.

In one study rats were taught to run a maze while heavily intoxicated.  They were
able to learn the maze and complete it many times with little trouble. After the
rats had time to sober up, they were placed in the same maze again, but this
time it took them considerably longer to run the maze and some could not finish
the maze at all. However, when the rats when were intoxicated once again and
placed in the same maze, they completed it quickly with almost no problem.

As we began to write this essay one of us found that it was easier and more
comfortable to begin the essay using pen and paper, and the other one found
that it was much easier to write with the aid of word processing software.  We
both had learned distinct ways to create written work and favored our own way
more because we had built up our learning paradigm for writing around them.  
These two types of writing involve different types of posture, different types of
movement and therefore different cognitive processes.  We were both more
familiar and more comfortable with our own writing implements and styles. Yet
more importantly we favored our own style because we knew that they held the
contextual cues, heuristic advantages, and complex associations that enabled
us to write comfortably and cohesively.  To us, our respective ways of writing
were physical and mental learning states that we needed to recreate in order to
perform at full capacity.

Because our two distinct types of writing were virtually incompatible, we had to
split up the work.  The attachment that we both felt towards our respective states
may signify that the states had an emotional aspect for us as well.

By Cheryl Scott and Jared Reser
Organization for the Advancement of   
Interdisciplinary Learning