Prospective memory: characteristics and associated mental processes

What would we do without memory? Memory shapes the history of our life and is part of our identity. It is true that when we talk to us from memory, we tend to think of the past. However, there is another type of forward-looking memory: prospective memory.

This type of memory allows us to store plans and intentions for the future. For example, it allows me to remember what I have to do tomorrow, to plan the day and to carry out the plans I have thought of. In this article, we will learn what this type of “future” memory is, its components and what it is used for.

    What is prospective memory?

    Memory is a brain function that allows us to use information about our environment (and our interior) in several ways: it allows us to encode, store and retrieve it. According to some theories, memory results from the repetitive synaptic connections that form between our neurons, thus creating neural networks.

    Memory is very important to our identity because it largely defines who we are; moreover, it is a function that we use constantly, in practically all of our daily facets.

    However, memory is not only about knowing and remembering things from the past, but it also allows us to store future-oriented plans and intentions in our brains. Two authors, Kvavilashvili and Ellis, in 1996, named this type of memory: it is prospective memory.

    They defined it as “remembering to do something at some point in the future and carrying out the previously formulated plan”. Which means it includes two components: one more theoretical (to remember) and another more practical (to carry out the reflection plan).


      Taxonomic models consider prospective memory to be part of episodic or autobiographical memory; the latter, for their part, consider that it is also divided into retrospective memory (oriented towards the past), alongside prospective memory (oriented towards the future).

      According to these models, autobiographical memory makes us aware of our past, and it prepares us to act in the future. This is considered an important evolutionary breakthrough, as information about what we have experienced is fundamental to self-awareness.

      Self-awareness includes a unique, personal and clean past, and a future that is also our own, which allows us to identify or not identify with what we experience and remember.

      What is this memory for?

      Cognitively and experientially, we have already seen how memory plays an essential role in each of us. Specifically, prospective memory also plays a key role in our cognition, as it allows us to develop effectively. when planning and developing activities of daily living.

      When we include certain new activities or actions in our daily life (non-routine actions), we do so because of previous intentions. These intentions need control and planning to carry out the actions we want to take, and this is achieved through forward-looking memory and the various executive functions.


      Some authors have attempted to analyze the elements that make up the forward-looking report, with the aim of facilitating their assessment. Some of them are:

      1. Metacognition

      It’s the necessary and specific knowledge to carry out the action.

      2. Planning

      The formulation of the plan is essential to facilitate the implementation of the action.

      3. Follow-up

      Follow the process we want to perform, Step by step.

      4. Content of the dossier

      Remember the content of the action to be taken.

      5. Compliance

      We must accept to act.

      6. Checking the result

      This is also monitor the final resultIn other words, check whether we have met expectations of previous results, following the plans formulated.

      The role of retrospective memory

      Prospective memory tasks also have a retrospective (past oriented) memory component. Let’s think of an example to illustrate this: we may forget to give our father an order when we see him, because we have forgotten the intention to do so (prospective memory) or because we do not remember what we are doing. planes to say -li (retrospective memory).

      Thus, prospective memory would include threads such as Intent recording, information update, Intent fulfillment and Goal evaluation.

      Relationship with executive functions

      It has been shown in some works how prospective memory relates to executive functions. Executive functions allow us to organize, plan, review and evaluate the behaviors necessary to adapt effectively to the environment; moreover, they are a guide that allows us to reach milestones.

      This relationship refers to the fact that prospective memory requires executive control processes to function; imagine I have to call the dentist at 12 to make an appointment. You will probably remember to call if at age 11 I had a toothache. Therefore, if the system receives continuous information about what we need to do, that information will work as a signal that will update the system to make it more efficient.

      Thus, executive functions are of great importance because they allow the person to constantly review and evaluate information to “update” what is happening to him, which allows him to easily remember what is happening to him. He must do. In other words, this mental “review” has a lot to do with the two concepts: prospective memory and executive functions (because it makes it possible to assess what the person has done and what remains to be done).

      Bibliographical references:

      • Kvavilashvili, L., Ellis, J. (1996). Varieties of intention: some distinctions and classifications. A Brandimonte M, Einstein GO, McDaniel MA, eds. Prospective thesis: theory and applications. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum Associates.
      • Tulving, E. (2002). Episodic memory: from mind to brain. Annu Rev Psychol, 53, 1-25.
      • Tirapu-Ustárroz, J. and Muñoz-Céspedes, JM (2005). Memory and executive functions. REV Neurol, 41 (8), 475-484.

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