MCAT Content / Memory / Retrieval


Topic: Memory

Memory storage allows us to hold onto information for a very long duration of time—even a lifetime.

Memory retrieval is the process of remembering information stored in long-term memory. There are three main types of memory retrieval: recall, recognition and relearning. Recall occurs when the information must be retrieved from memories. Recognition happens when the presentation of a familiar outside stimulus provides a cue that the information has been seen before. A cue might be an object or a scene—any stimulus that reminds a person of something related. Relearning, involves learning information that you previously learned.

Recall may be assisted when retrieval cues are presented that enable the subject to access the information in memory quickly.

Memory retrieval can occur in several different ways, and many things can affect it, such as how long it has been since the last time you retrieved the memory, what other information you have learned in the meantime and many other variables. For example, the spacing effect allows a person to remember something they have studied many times spaced over a longer period of time rather than all at once. The testing effect shows that practising retrieval of a concept can increase the chance of remembering it.

Some effects relate specifically to certain types of recall. There are three main types of recall studied in psychology: serial recall, free recall, and cued recall.

Serial recall is the recall items or events in the order in which they occurred. By thinking about a string of events or even words, it is possible to use a previous memory to cue the next item in the series. This can sometimes lead to serial-position effect which is the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst.

Free recall occurs when a person must recall many items but can recall them in any order. In free recall, there is often a primacy effect in which the items that were presented first are recalled well as they have already been encoded into long-term memory. There is also a recency effect, in which the items that were presented last are also recalled well as they are still being held in the working short-term memory.

Cued recall occurs when a person is given a list to remember and is then given cues during the testing phase to aid in the retrieval of memories. The stronger the link between the cue and the testing word, the better the participant will recall the words.

Memory retrieval can be assisted by the use of emotion and the use of cues.

Retrieval cues are used to associate memories with an experience or object to help the retrieval of that memory. The general principle that underlies the effectiveness of retrieval cues is the encoding specificity principle when people encode information; they do so in specific ways. In general, the encoding specificity principle states that to the extent a retrieval cue (the song) matches or overlaps the memory trace of an experience (the party, the conversation), it will be effective in evoking the memory.

Emotion can also play a apart in the retrieval of a memory. When a process or piece of information is learned when a certain emotion is being experienced, this can lead to the emotion eliciting this memory at a later point. For example, when a person is upset, they may be reminded of other times they were upset due to the emotional connection to similar memories.

An example of emotion playing a role in the recall of an event is a flashbulb memory. A flashbulb memory, which is a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid “snapshot” of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard. For example, many people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. This is because it is a flashbulb memory.

Practice Questions

Khan Academy


MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Online Flashcards Psychology Question 16

Online Flashcards Psychology Question 23

Section Bank P/S Section Question 16

Section Bank P/S Section Question 30

Sample Test P/S Section Passage 1 Question 3

Key Points

• Retrieval cues can facilitate recall. Cues are thought to be most effective when they have a strong, complex link with the information to be recalled.

• Memories of events or items tend to be recalled in the same order in which they were experienced, so by thinking through a list or series of events; you can boost your recall of successive items.

• Cues and emotion can be used to help with the retrieval of memories.

Key Terms

Retrieval: the cognitive process of bringing stored information into consciousness

Recall: information retrieved from memories.

Recognition: the presentation of a familiar outside stimulus provides a cue that the information has been seen before

Relearning: learning information that you previously learned.

Encoding specificity principle: the hypothesis that a retrieval cue will be effective to the extent that information encoded from the cue overlaps or matches the information in the memory.

Cued recall: when cues are used to aid in the retrieval of memories.

Flashbulb memory: a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential news was learned.

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