Prospective memory is defined as the ability to remember to carry out intended actions in the future (Brandimonte, Einstein, & McDaniel, 1996; Kerns, 2000).
It is remembering to remember, and it is important in everyday life.
Here are some examples of prospective memory:-
The above are examples of event-based prospective memory. Time-based prospective memory is a more complex cognitive process because the instruction or intention is to do something at, or by, a certain time in the future and unless we create an alarm there is often no stimulus to remind us. For example:-
Prospective memory is made easier when we are interested in what we need to do, when it matters to us, and when we don’t have too many things to remember at any one time.
Prospective memory develops during childhood and adolescence through to our mid-twenties, but during the teenage years other factors come into play which make it less reliable in certain circumstances. Teenagers need to become increasingly independent in preparation for leaving home and prospective memory plays an important role in helping them achieve this goal. They remember to bring homework home, and to get it done by a certain time. They offer to help a friend at the end of the school day, and they remember to show up. However, when it comes to event-based prospective memory there are some circumstances which make it less reliable.
Imagine this scenario:
You are having a relaxed family dinner at home with your child. The subject of alcohol and drugs comes up, so you ask what they already know, and they reel off an impressive list of facts and statistics. You discuss their attitude to alcohol and drugs and learn that they are strongly anti-drug use. You discuss their intention towards alcohol and once again, they are adamant that they will never take drugs of any sort. You discuss how they would get out of a situation if someone was pressing them to take alcohol or drugs, and you are impressed that they have a realistic plan. They are serious, they seem to have thought things through, and you feel confident that they will be able to stick to their values.
Three days later they are off to a party. Within two hours of dropping them off you get a phone call asking you to collect your child because he/she is drunk, and the host does not want to be responsible for them. You are shocked and puzzled. How did all those good intentions go wrong so quickly?
Well, it is like this. The original discussion took place in a “cool” environment where rational thinking is easy because the Pre-Frontal Cortex, which is the executive functioning part of the brain, was in the driving seat. If they had been in another cool environment three days later such as your friend’s kitchen with other adults around, they would have refused the alcohol.
The party, on the other hand, is a “hot” environment where there is potential for experimentation and excitement along with peer pressure and a fear of missing out. The limbic (emotional) and striatum (reward) parts of the brain are activated which interferes with prospective memory. In the “hot” zone good intentions are not always enough to stop impulsive behaviour.
This is normal adolescent behaviour but there are things we can do to prevent lapses of prospective memory: –
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