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Prospective Memory & Decision Making by Alicia Drummond, Therapist & Founder of The Wellbeing Hub

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:-

  • You give me a task which is to remember to give Joe a message when I see him. I have been given an instruction which I must hold in my memory until the correct stimulus occurs (in this case seeing Joe) and then act.
  • Another example might be an intention I form for myself. I want to cut down on sugar. I formulate a plan to eat healthily before I go shopping to stop hangry impulse buying, and to search for apples first.  When I arrive in the supermarket several hours later the apple hunt reminds me of my intention to eat less sugar, and I avoid the sweet section

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:-

  • You instruct me to switch the oven on at 7pm or by 7pm – it is my time-based prospective memory which will ensure (or not) that you have a hot oven to cook in at 7.15pm.

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: –

  1. Keep instructions simple and provide memory joggers. Something as simple as a picture chart of all the things a child needs to do in the morning with a box to tick each one off as it is done, will help.  Older children can set alarms on their phones.
  2. Walk throughs and talk throughs help prospective memory. For example, if your child gets upset at the end of a play date walking them through what needs to happen will lessen their reaction –  “when I arrive to pick you up after tea I will chat to Sarah’s mum and I will give you a five-minute warning before we need to leave so you can finish your game – what do you think you need to do then?”
  3. Regular repetition – one walk through might not be enough, and it is definitely not enough to address a topic such as drugs just once. Little and often is a better approach when building prospective memory
  4. Place emphasis on the more important intentions – the more important we think something, is the less likely we are to forget it.
  5. If your child struggles in social situations take them to a play area and encourage them to watch others who are more socially adept. Talk to them about how they might use the same strategies, get them to practice with you, and then give them an opportunity to try out their new skills with others.
  6. Most young people are socially conscious and will be interested in discussing the wider impact of drugs on society; education, friends and family. Help them see the bigger picture.]
  7. Use the media to spark discussions. For example, this clip from The Vice (go to 5.5 mins in to start) shows how drugs are made in the UK – WARNING please watch it first to decide if you think your child is old enough for the content.
  8. If a discussion does not go well, don’t give up. Revisit the topic again, and again, and again.
  9. Children are safer when school and home are aligned in their approach and messaging. Take an interest in what they are learning in PSHE.

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