The Environmental Basis of Memory

John R. Anderson, Shawn Betts, Michael D. Byrne, Lael J. Schooler, Clayton Stanley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Memory should make more available things that are more likely to be needed. Across multiple environmental domains, it has been shown that such a system would match qualitatively the memory effects involving repetition, delay, and spacing (Schooler & Anderson, 2017). To obtain data of sufficient size to study how detailed patterns of past appearance predict probability of being needed again, we examined the patterns with which words appear in large two data sets: tweets from popular sources and comments on popular subreddits. The two data sets show remarkably similar statistics, which are also consistent with earlier, smaller studies of environmental statistics. None of a candidate set of mathematical models of memory do well at predicting the observed patterns in these environments. A new model of human memory based on the environmental model proposed by Anderson and Milson (1989) did better at predicting the environmental data and a wide range of behavioral studies that measure memory availability by probability of recall and speed of retrieval. A critical variable in this model was range, the span of time over which an item occurs, which was discovered in mining the environmental data. These results suggest that theories of memory can be guided by mining of the statistical structure of the environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1137-1166
Number of pages30
JournalPsychological review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Dec 22 2022


  • environmental statistics
  • memory
  • rational analysis
  • spacing effect

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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