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What is Prospective Memory?

By Dr. Usmarah Hussain

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What is Prospective Memory

Have you ever thought about how your brain instantly gives you a signal to stop and get some eggs as you pass by your local supermarket? Or how do you remember to take your medication every single day at the exact same time? Stop for a moment and think about how does this all happen? How does your brain make you remember exactly what you need to do? These magical powers of the human brain come from its ability to form and remember prospective memory.

According to research, 50 to 80% of memory problems that we experience every day are linked to prospective memory. [1] Things like forgetting to do something on time or forgetting what you should have remembered are all due to poor prospective memory and can lead to potentially dangerous consequences. For instance, you may forget to send the official presentation to your boss in time and risk a demotion, forget to take contraceptives and get pregnant, or leave the iron plugged in and trigger a fire.

Given the risks attached to it, it’s important you learn what prospective memory is, its types, and how to improve it.

All About Prospective Memory: Practical and Psychological Definitions

There has been a rising interest in the study and research of prospective memory over the past two decades. Despite being coined for the first time in the 1960s, scientists have started to understand its importance only now.[2]

To put it simply, prospective memory describes the ability to do certain things in the future. It is usually defined as the ability to remember and perform an activity or task that you have planned, such as remembering to take your medicines every day. According to researchers, prospective memory is highly significant as it makes life more organized and well-managed.[3] Some also consider it as a mechanism of self-regulation that allows humans to control, monitor, and change their behaviors depending on internal cues.

In psychological terms, prospective memory is a type of long-term memory that helps humans carry out intended actions in the time to come. This type of memory requires a person to be aware of their surroundings and ponder over what they need to do next. Prospective memory differs from working memory and short-term memory as it requires additional planning and effort. While working memory can only hold onto a few thoughts at a time, prospective memories allow humans to keep track of and remember various tasks over a long time period.

How Prospective Memory Works

To understand how humans develop prospective memory, it is imperative to understand how memory works in general. Memory can be divided into two types: long-term and short-term. Short-term memories are the ones that we remember for a few seconds, minutes, or hours depending on what we have to remember. Longer-term memories, on the other hand, may last for months, years, or even a lifetime.

Different Types of Memory

The way the human brain stores information about events in the past varies depending on the type of information being stored. For example, conversations may not be stored as well as facts. Similarly, the brain fades out visual images pretty soon unless you use verbal support to supplement them. It is possible to store auditory stimuli for a much longer time than visual ones but even these stimuli can fade out within 30 minutes if you do not rehearse them.

Prospective memories, in general, stem from cues indicative or suggestive of the future. Some examples include a calendar alert that signals you to leave for work or friend reminding you about an upcoming event next week. Prospective memory also involves the ability to set plans and goals which means that people who struggle with this skill may find it difficult to remember things they promised to do.

Categorizing Prospective Memory: It’s Not All The Same

While the definition of prospective memory is pretty straightforward and clear, it can be divided into three different subtypes, mostly depending on the content of memory. [4] These types include:

Event-Based Prospective Memory

This type of prospective memory involves remembering to do something in association with an event. Some examples include:

  • Remembering to take your daily medication every time you have lunch
  • Remembering to buy milk and eggs when you pass by the grocery store
  • Remembering to call your mom when you walk past a Mother’s Day sale

Time-Based Prospective Memory

This type of prospective memory involves remembering to do something at specific times. For example:

  • Remembering to go for a jog every day at 6 pm
  • Remembering to attend an office meeting at a certain time
  • Calling your friend on their birthday
  • Remembering to pick flowers on your anniversary day

Activity-Based Prospective Memory

This type of prospective memory involves planning for an event in the future that may not be necessarily tied to a deadline or date. For example:

  • Remembering to clean your bins after cooking dinner
  • Remembering an errand you need to run before reaching home the moment you leave your work desk

Keep in mind that we need all three types as many prospective thoughts may not seem relevant at the moment but gains importance later on at a specific location, time, or context. For instance:

  • You may be away from your office computer but remember to change something in an office presentation
  • You have to purchase a lot of things and need to plan it on the weekend
  • You have thought of an idea, but have to wait for a week to do it in a meeting

There is another type of categorization when it comes to prospective memory. As per this categorization, prospective memory can be:

  • Immediate-execute: This type of prospective memory involves anything that you have to do the very moment something else happens, for instance, remembering to cool breakfast at 8 am.
  • Delayed-execute: This type of prospective memory is when you have to do something but at a later time, for example, removing the lid from a cooking pan after 15 minutes of boiling rice.

Can You Build Prospective Memory?

For us humans, prospective memory is an indirectly built meta-skill. [5] Consider it a byproduct skill that you acquired by simply executing the rest of your skills, but that does not mean you cannot improve it. The key to building and strengthening prospective memory is spacing: information that you remember a few times but with gaps in between can improve this skill. Why? Because knowledge that our brains produce on purpose is remembered better than information that we passively absorb. Additionally, the human brain relies on different systems for recognition and recall, so practicing recall is essential to improve your prospective memory.

Improving Your Prospective Memory

When you start paying proper attention, you essentially kickstart an elaborative rehearsal that involves deep memory processing. This deep memory processing links the incoming information to other contexts and memories, making it easier for you to recall them later.[6] So how can you practice these elaborative rehearsals in real time? Consider following the tips mentioned below:

  • Say out loud whatever you need to remember and when
  • Pay attention to the context in which you remembered any key information
  • Let someone know about the information
  • Try remembering what you “planned to remember” during a toilet break or commute
  • Note it down in a notebook or mobile phone
  • Attach an emotion to the information by thinking more about it
  • Give yourself reminders, such as “remember to do this before going to bed”
  • As you prepare to sleep, quickly think about all important events that happened during the day and make plans for the next day to trigger any prospective memory hints
  • Have a quick look around to pick up any indicators, hints, or locations that may trigger a prospective memory

When you store information on your phone, either as a note or a voice note, you increase your access to that memory. This is because by doing so, you often remember where that information is, even when you forget what the information was about. If you know where to find the information you need, you can start learning how to trace it mentally and remember important details much more quickly.

Conclusion: Sharpening Your Brain For the Future

To recap, prospective memory is an essential skill that helps us get through hundreds of jobs every week. From remembering to buy eggs to taking your daily medication, it helps you plan and organize life and plays an essential role in making life easier. The good news is you can always improve your prospective memory to counteract forgetfulness. The tips mentioned above can slowly but surely strengthen prospective memory and introduce more convenience in life.

Frequently Asked Questions

What part of the brain helps with prospective memory?

Research suggests that the anterior prefrontal cortex helps monitor prospective memory intentions. Other parts of the brain that directly or indirectly contribute to the spontaneous recollection of these memories include the medial temporal lobe and the hippocampus.

Why do humans forget to do things?

Forgetting to do something means failing to retrieve prospective memories and acting on them, and several factors can lead to this failure. These factors may include setting vague intentions, such as exercising “today” instead of specifying a certain slot or linking it with something else, not using enough reminders through calendar alerts or notes, multitasking, etc.

Can aging interfere with prospective memory?

Aging can directly impact prospective memory, leading to negative effects. The magnitude of this decline varies depending on multiple factors.

What is the difference between prospective and retrospective memory?

The human brain has two different types of memory processing and banks working all the time: retrospective and prospective memory. Retrospective memory deals with memories of past events that have already happened whereas prospective memory focuses on recalling information that connects with something we are supposed to do in the future. For example, retrospective memory is remembering your birthday event last year while prospective memory includes remembering to bring milk and eggs when you go out for a job tomorrow.


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