Using Contextual Priming and Cueing to Enhance Memory

Neuroscientists are discovering new ways to help people learn every day. Let’s talk about two of them:

Priming and Post-cueing.


Priming is the practice of presenting information before a learning experience, to “prime” the brain so that it is ready to pay attention to new content. Everything that we learn comes to us through the senses and is temporarily stored in our Short-Term memory. Our brain then evaluates what is in the short-term memory and decides what is worth your attention and retention. If the information looks like it will help you survive in some way, it makes the cut. If we haven’t demonstrated the value of our information, it literally “goes in one ear and out the other,” as my mom used to say.


So far it all makes perfect sense. But here’s where it gets a little weird. Scientists at the University of Amsterdam have discovered that if your brain encounters the same or a similar image a short while after encountering the first one, it will go back and retag that earlier image as more important. But hold on. The earlier image wasn’t yet identified as important, so why was it sticking around at all? Apparently the participants’ brains were able to retrieve or re-activate a piece of information and re-label it as important even though they had previously labeled that same image as irrelevant.

A few conclusions we can draw from this research include:

  • We clearly don’t understand short-term memory and its role in learning as well as we thought we did.
  • Our brains are able to travel back in time and re-code information.
  • We can use this time-traveling ability to enhance learning by using post-cueing as well as priming.

Adam Plumer, of Rexi Media, suggests that you use this information to intentionally set post-cues throughout a presentation. The same applies, of course, to any structured learning experience.

When you add post-cueing to priming, you get something that looks a lot like what we “old-timers” have said for decades: Tell them what you’re going to say. Say it. Then tell them what you said.

Maybe we’re all time lords! (Apologies to fans of Dr. Who.)