What governs whether or not you’ll retrieve a memory? I’ve talked about the importance of retrieval cues, of the match between the cue and the memory code you’re trying to retrieve, of the strength of the connections leading to the code. But these all have to do with the memory code.
Theta brainwaves, in the hippocampus especially, have been shown to be particularly important in memory function. It has been suggested that theta waves before an item is presented for processing lead to better encoding. Now a new study reveals that, when volunteers had to memorize words with a related context, they were better at later remembering the context of the word if high theta waves were evident in their brains immediately before being prompted to remember the item.
In the study, 17 students made pleasantness or animacy judgments about a series of words. Shortly afterwards, they were presented with both new and studied words, and asked to indicate whether the word was old or new, and if old, whether the word had been encountered in the context of “pleasant” or “alive”. Each trial began with a 1000 ms presentation of a simple mark for the student to focus on. Theta activity during this fixation period correlated with successful retrieval of the episodic memory relating to that item, and larger theta waves were associated with better source memory accuracy (memory for the context).
Theta activity has not been found to be particularly associated with greater attention (the reverse, if anything). It seems more likely that theta activity reflects a state of mind that is oriented toward evaluating retrieval cues (“retrieval mode”), or that it reflects reinstatement of the contextual state employed during study.
The researchers are currently investigating whether you can deliberately put your brain into a better state for memory recall.
 . Prestimulus theta activity predicts correct source memory retrieval. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2011 ;108(26):10702 - 10707. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/108/26/10702.abstract