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Contextual similarity and memory strength

Classical interference theory predicts that memories of similar events interfere with each other, while modern integration theory predicts that these memories might reinforce each other. In a series of experiments involving more than 120 volunteers, Wouter Cox et al. report that similar memories may alter or reinforce each other, depending on the circumstances. On the first day of the experiment, the authors presented the participants with pairs of names, such as “cigar book,” embedded in various spatial environments, such as a living room or a cityscape. The next day, participants visualized pairs of words presented either in the original spatial context or against a different background. On the third day, participants were asked to remember the word pairs. Similar spatial contexts enhanced memories over different contexts, thus supporting integration theory. However, when the conditions for testing and retrieving memory were changed, contextual similarity altered memories compared to contextual dissimilarity, thus supporting the interference theory. According to the authors, the findings may reconcile the conflicting predictions of traditional and contemporary theories about how memories interact. – JW

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