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What Is Memory for the Future?

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  • Written By: Laura M. Sands
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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Memory for the future is simply making a mental note to remember something at a later time. Examples include remembering early in the day to pick a friend up from work in the evening, remembering to send a card to a relative for her or his birthday, or remembering to pick dinner up on the way home from work. None of these things has to be done at the immediate time that the mental note is made, but must be done later; hence this type of future thinking is known as memory for the future.

Also known as prospective memory, this type of memory can be thought of as a type of future thinking. It is essentially planning or preparing to do something in the future and making a mental effort to recall actions needed to complete such a plan at the appropriate time. In short, memory for the future can be described as remembering to remember or not forgetting to remember.

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Some people use different techniques to accomplish memory for the future. One such prospective memory trick involves a sort of mental time travel that requires a person to visualize actually performing an activity. Such may help her or him remember to actually do the activity at the appointed time. An example of this type of episodic future thinking would be visualizing taking a pet to be groomed and speaking to the groomer about the type of products used to bathe a pet. Doing so may help someone actually remember to caution a groomer about an animal’s irritated skin and request that certain products not be used in the grooming process.

Other memory processes may interact to assist memory for the future. For instance, when temperatures drop and a person experiences cold weather, such sensory memory may trigger the prospective memory to note the necessity of purchasing firewood or to schedule an appointment for a chimney cleaning. While many only think of memory in terms of semantic memory or declarative memory such as remembering facts, concepts and skills, memory for the future is often taken for granted. Yet, healthy children and adults use this type of memory multiple times each day to accomplish both minor and major tasks.

When working memory becomes damaged due to injury or disease, memory for the future is often lost. Such loss is often evident in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease who can no longer remember to do simple future tasks, such as taking important medications, preparing daily meals or even completing daily grooming rituals. Memory for the future is as essential to everyday life as other types of memory which help humans interact with one another, remember important events and perform essential tasks.

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