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How Our Environment Affects What We Remember

Published in Memory.

Summary: When successive experiences occur in the same environment, they become more deeply imprinted in our brain.

Source: University of Amsterdam

It is a common experience that, when you share memories with a friend, you can recount some events in much more detail than others, while other times, you mix up memories. But why do our memories change? It is all about the spatial context, says clinical psychologist Vanessa van Ast.

When successive experiences take place in the same environment, they become more deeply imprinted in our memory. But when an experience takes place in a new context, the memory of this experience pushes earlier memories to the background.

Our episodic memory enables us to recount things that we personally experienced. For example, when reminiscing with a friend about seeing a film together in the cinema, people are able to share all kinds of funny details of things that happened that evening. When people think back to watching a film that made them emotional, this may even cause their heart to start racing again. That is because we relive experiences much more physically when our emotional memory is triggered.

However, memories can change. We sometimes forget certain details, our memory starts to incorporate details from other experiences, or the evoked emotion of an experience becomes stronger when our memory of it is repeatedly triggered.

Clinical psychologist Vanessa van Ast does research into episodic and emotional memories and under what conditions they change. Van Ast, who was awarded a Veni grant from the Dutch Research Council (NWO), explains that one of the key findings of her research is that the environment in which people recall an experience has a big impact on how they remember it: ‘We already knew that spatial context affects memory recollection, but we did not have a good understanding of what happens to memories afterwards.’