Metamemory refers to our knowledge and awareness of our own memory processes, including the ability to monitor and control the learning process. However, not all memory processes are about accumulation and retention of knowledge. A substantial portion of memory research involves the study of forgetting. We are interested in how metamemory is involved when the goal is to forget rather than to retain information. Our lab investigates how beliefs about own memory ability, as well as beliefs about memorability of information influence directed forgetting, even if such beliefs may be completely illusory (i.e., beliefs that information presented in large size font is more memorable than small font size information, even though objectively there is no effect of font size on memory). We have also examined how value-based learning affects memory control in intentional forgetting scenarios. For representative publications, see

• Foster, N.L., Dunlosky, J., & Sahakyan, L. (2015). Is awareness of the ability to forget (or to remember) critical for demonstrating directed forgetting? Journal of Memory and Language, 85, 88-100.

• Sahakyan, L., & Foster, N. L. (2016). The Need for Metaforgetting: Insights from Directed Forgetting. In J. Dunlosky & S. Tauber (Eds.), pp. 341-356, Oxford Handbook of Metacognition.

• Foster, N. L. & Sahakyan, L. (2012). Metacognition can guide rehearsal processes in item- method directed forgetting. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 38, 1309-1324

Memory & Forgetting
in ContexT lab

at University of Illinois

Psychology Building - Room 685
603 East Daniel Street
Champaign, IL 61820
lab phone: (217) 239-0584


Our everyday experiences unfold in a certain place, over time, and they often involve estimating time durations. For example, while waiting in line at a Wal-Mart, feelings of lengthened duration may influence whether you purchase the items or quit waiting in line and leave the store. Plenty of evidence suggests that people grossly underestimate how long it will take them to write a paper, complete Christmas shopping, or build buildings. Not only do we often err in estimating the duration of future events, but also in judging the duration of completed or current events. What accounts for such errors? Our lab explored prospective time judgments, as well as retrospective time judgments, which are the duration judgments made unexpectedly after the completion of an event. In both cases, time estimates are heavily influenced by memory of events occupying the time interval, including the event boundaries and segmentation. For representative publications, see

• Sahakyan, L. & Smith, J. R. (2014). “A Long time ago, in a context far, far away”: Retrospective time estimates and internal context change. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 86-93.

 • Waldum, E. R. & Sahakyan, L. (2013). A role for memory in prospective timing informs timing in prospective memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 809-826.


We are interested in individual differences in memory. We have examined

• Older Adults (over 65+ )

• Young adults with variability in Working Memory Capacity

• Schizotypy (non-clinical participants with vulnerability for schizophrenia)

Our research suggests that low-span participants as well as older adults have deficits in encoding context during the processing of information, which explains some of the memory difficulties that are observed during the retrieval stage. We also discovered that positive and negative schizotypy show a differential pattern of deficits across different memory tasks, implicating a complex pattern of memory impairment in clinical schizophrenia. For representative publications, see:

• Sahakyan, L., Abushanab, B., Smith, J. R., & Gray, K. J. (2014). Individual differences in contextual storage: Evidence from the list-strength effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 873-881.

 • Sahakyan, L., Delaney, P. F., & Goodmon, L. B. (2008) “Oh, honey, I already forgot that”: Strategic control of directed forgetting in older and younger adults. Psychology & Aging, 23, 621-633.

• Sahakyan, L., & Kwapil, T. R. (2016). Positive schizotypy and negative schizotypy are associated with differential patterns of episodic memory impairment. Schizophrenia Reserach: Cognition, 5, 35-40.


When we retrieve things in a context that is different from the one in which we learned it, we experience forgetting. This phenomenon occurs not only with physical environments but also with moods or pharmacological states. Our lab was the first to demonstrate that changes in mental context (i.e., the thoughts you experience during learning) can also cause forgetting. For example, we have shown that disrupting the learning process by asking participants to engage in certain imagination tasks causes forgetting of previously learned information, while also enabling better future learning. Importantly, we discovered that not all distracting thoughts (or imagination tasks) produce forgetting; some distracting thoughts produce more forgetting than others. We are interested in why some imagination tasks hurt memory more than other imagination tasks. Finally, we have examined the effects of imagining future contexts on memory. Even though we may be in one physical reality during learning, through the power of imagination we can transport ourselves into a different reality, and examine the how such mental time travel impacts memory. For representative publications, see:

• Delaney, P. F., Sahakyan, L., Kelley, C. M., & Zimmerman, C. (2010). Remembering to forget: The amnesic effect of daydreaming. Psychological Science, 21, 1036- 1042.

• Masicampo, E. J., & Sahakyan, L. (2014). Imagining another context during encoding offsets context-dependent forgetting. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 1772-1777.

Research topics


Substantial portion of our research has been devoted to examining how people retrieve appropriate memories, while excluding inappropriate ones. Any system that uses memory must be able to identify some memories as more relevant than others, and be able to reduce the accessibility of unwanted information. Our work (along with others in the field) suggests that people have much greater control over their forgetting than they perhaps realize. We are not always passive victims of something that happens to us, but rather we are active participants of our own forgetting. At first, this idea might seem odd because more often than not we wish to retain information rather than forget it (i.e., it is counterproductive to forget that you paid the bill and pay it again). However, sometimes situations arise when it is desirable to let go of some information because it was wrong, outdated, embarrassing, or painful. Thus, forgetting can actually serve an adaptive function in memory as opposed to being a nuisance or a flaw of our cognitive system. Our lab examines how people forget unwanted memories, and the role of executive control in those processes. We have examined intentional forgetting of variety of materials, including but not limited to verbal information, motor actions, and attitude statements. For a review of this topic, see.

• Sahakyan, L., Delaney, P. F., Abushanab, B., & Foster, N. L. (2013). List-Method Directed Forgetting in Cognitive and Clinical Research: A Theoretical and Methodological Review. In B. Ross (Ed.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, v. 59, Elsevier.

Our laboratory investigates the role of context in episodic memory

In our constantly changing environment, we process enormous amounts of information on a daily basis. While we may not pay particularly close attention to the context in which we study and learn, context plays a fundamental role in memory as it provides the "setting" in which memories are formed. The research topics in this lab evolve around our fundamental interest in how context shapes and organizes our episodic memories, as well as how context influences the retrieval of memories. We use a variety of methods, including behavioral experiments, neuropsychological studies involving fMRI, eye tracking studies, as well as computational modeling approaches to arrive at a deeper understanding of the role of context in memory. We study these questions with different populations, including but not limited to: studies with older adults, younger adults with individual differences in executive control, as well as adults with vulnerability to various forms of mental illness.


Lab Members

Fall 2017

Dr. Lili Sahakyan

Lab Director

Dr. Sahakyan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology. She is originally from Armenia (to read more about her, click here). She came to the United States in 1995 as an undergraduate, after winning a competitive international exchange program. The exchange program placed her at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, where she completed both her Bachelors and Masters degrees. She obtained her doctoral degree in 2002 from Florida State University. Her work on motivated forgetting established the importance of mental context in memory retrieval and forgetting, and has transpired the development of novel paradigms and approaches for assessment of different aspects of memory.

Сurrent Members

Judy Chiu

Jonathon Whitlock

Postdoctoral student

Graduate student

Lab Alumni

Dr. Nathaniel Foster

Assistant Professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Dr. Emily Waldum

Postdoctoral Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis

Dr. Leilani Goodmon

Associate Professor at Florida Southern University

James R. Smith

M.A. degree

Kendra J. Gray

M.A. degree