What Is Prospective Memory?

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  • Written By: V. Cassiopia
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 01 March 2019
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
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Retrospective memory is the ability to remember past experiences. Prospective memory is the ability to remember future intentions. Both types of remembering have three basic processes: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Prospective memory is thought to require more complex mental functions than retrospective memory.

Aging can affect both retrospective memory and prospective memory. Medical conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can also affect both types of memory. These conditions can cause the physical structure of the brain to deteriorate so severely that a person loses the ability to reason or to accurately recognize, store, and retrieve information.

Prospective memory enables individuals to adequately function in daily life. It has four basic elements: conceiving the intent to do something, remembering the intention over time, carrying out the intention, and remembering that it was done. These elements combine to make an individual self-sufficient by being able to organize, monitor, and remember details of everyday life.

Prospective memory has two main areas: time and events. Both of these areas work by environmental cues. For example, if you look at a clock and remembers an errand that needed to be done at a certain time, that would be time-based cuing. On the other hand, if you remembered that a book was due when driving past the library, that would be event-based cuing.


Both time-based and event-based memory processes have been found to be linked to higher mental functions. These functions are located in the cerebral cortex — the frontal lobes of the brain. Time-based processes, however, are believed to be the most closely linked to the higher cerebral functions that are required in thinking.

Habitual prospective memory handles performing repetitive tasks. The task is something specific that needs to be done at a certain time. For example, if someone takes medication on a daily basis, they need to remember the last time they took the medication, as well as the next time they need to take it.

Aging can affect the operation of habitual prospective memory. As someone ages, memories can become confused with intentions. An individual may not remember if a daily medication was taken that day or the previous day. Psychologists have also found that lack of attention can also affect this type of memory.

Chronic pain has also been found to affect habitual prospective memory. The pain reduces the ability to concentrate on tasks, either at the present time or intended in the future. Several different kinds of self-help strategies have been worked out to help solve this problem. These strategies include repeating out loud what is to to be remembered, writing it down, and challenging the brain to remember, such as by purposefully using your left hand if you are right-handed.



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