No matter what you're trying to learn or why, the learning arguably only has value if you can retrieve the data your brain has tucked away when you need it. This is where state-dependent learning can do you a massive favor.

The concept

The idea of state-dependent learning, sometimes called context-dependent learning, comes initially from pharmacology. Researchers observed that people who learned information while under the influence of specific drugs had an easier time recalling that information if they were under the influence of those drugs again later. Experts thus theorized that your state of mind affects how your brain encodes memories, and that recreating that state of mind makes it easier to recall.

Over time, researchers have expanded on this basic idea. Now, they presume that state-dependent learning can happen because of normal physiological processes, too. For example, how tired or excited you are affects what's chemically going on in your brain and body, as does what you eat. Since memory encoding, emotion and sensory processing all connect, even something like wearing the same clothes or being in a room that's the same temperature might have an influence.

While the concept of state-dependent learning might seem new, it's actually been around for decades. Take the classic 1931 film City Lights starring Charlie Chaplin and Harry Myers, for example. In this short sequence of scenes below, Myers' character, an alcoholic millionaire, can remember his new friend (Chaplin) only when he gets drunk again.

State-dependent learning versus the current state of business affairs

State-dependent learning means that, if we are careful to be self-aware and are consistent with the way we approach data, we could perform significantly better. But right now, state-dependent learning also can fly in the face of modern business. We might be expected, for example, to attend a campus training and then take the test online--totally not in the same environment--when it's convenient for us. Tech makes us mobile, but might we be in a better position when learning if we didn't device hop? Alternately, we might do our best to be kind by bringing treats into an early morning conference, only to find out later we can't remember a main idea unless we get another donut first. And that's before you get into privacy regulations that prevent us from realizing others might need certain medications, or before you deal with cultural stipulations that, despite an emphasis on authenticity and connection, tell us not to pry too much into personal affairs and feelings.

And let's not forget the biohacking trend. Silicon Valley workers know this trend, which involves everything from fasting to taking prescription and illegal substances, all too well. What if the pressure to outpace competitors and stand out is actually fostering dependency and putting health at risk? After all, if you find you can only perform well by using again, what would you do?

Using state-dependent learning the right way

Current philosophies and operational standards might not always make it easy to use state-dependent learning well. You also have to be careful that you are learning in a healthy state so that returning to that state is safe. But the concept emphasizes the fact that routine in learning is incredibly important. Getting in the right frame of mind is as much biological as it is philosophical, so even as you try to work flexibly, be as mindful as possible. Ask yourself if your needs are met and what's different from the last time you approached the material. Organize yourself in a way so that even new projects or lessons have a flavor of familiarity.

But perhaps most critically, ditch the idea you should push through and learn "because you have to" when you feel awful. The more you think negatively, the more you reinforce the neural pathways for those bad thoughts, and the harder it becomes to feel good. Since state-dependent learning depends on going back to an original state, the last thing you want is to have to reinforce negativity just to recall what you need. Do your studying or training when you are happy and comfortable so that you can recreate a positive state later to unlock your information.

Published on: Jul 2, 2018