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How to Improve Prospective Memory, the Ability to Remember to Remember

The following essay is reprinted with the permission of The conversationThe Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.

Have you ever walked into a room and then wondered why you went there?

If you have experienced this phenomenon, you have had a possible memory lapse.


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Memory generally means remembering things that already happened. But prospective memory is the ability to remember to do something in the future, like stopping for milk on the way home from work, calling your mom on her birthday, or remembering to take the casserole out of the oven. Sometimes mistakes lead to heartbreaking results, like forgetting to take your toddler out of the car on a hot day.

I am a clinical neuropsychologist and professor of psychology and neuroscience. For the past 30 years, my research has focused on this phenomenon, measuring prospective memory and searching for treatments to help those who have problems.

Carry out future intentions.

Prospective memory is the ability to remember to remember, or to remember to carry out a future intention.

A future intention can be retrieved in two different ways. One is in response to something in your environment, such as a sight or sound, that serves as a cue to perform an intended action. Researchers like me call this an “event.” For example, you see your coworker and remember that you have a message for him; You hear the timer go off and remember to turn off the sprinklers.

The other way is in response to time. Your dentist appointment is scheduled for 2 pm, but you plan to exercise for 30 minutes first.

One possible explanation for how people retrieve a prospective memory is known as multiprocess theory.

According to this theory, sometimes you have to make an effort to remember, such as checking the time repeatedly until it’s 2 p.m. Other times memories come to you effortlessly, like when you hear an alarm. As the examples above suggest, memories that have time-based cues, such as 2 p.m., are often more difficult to remember than those that have event-based cues, such as an alarm.

Brain regions at play

Older adults tend to lose prospective memory as they age. This may be due to brain changes in the aging prefrontal cortex.

But it’s not all bad news. In fact, older adults seem to do better than younger adults in some situations when asked to remember things from their daily lives. We call this the age prospective memory paradox.

The part of the brain that appears most responsible for prospective memory is an area of ​​the frontal lobes, known as Brodmann’s area 10. This area is involved in holding information in mind while performing a different simultaneous task.

But prospective memory is complicated. You have to form an intention and then remember to do it. This is the function of the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for planning and organizing.

You have to recognize when it occurs, which involves the parietal lobe. You have to remember what the intention was: a form of retrospective memory that involves the hippocampus, a brain structure that is important for remembering facts, events and spatial routes, such as directions and locations.

Finally, in the case of time-based prospective memory, it is necessary to keep track of time, and this probably involves a group of different brain structures. Therefore, prospective memory can be affected by problems in any of these regions.

Medical conditions, alcohol, culture.

Over the past 30 years, my team and I have discovered that many medical conditions can affect prospective memory.

Excessive alcohol consumption appears to contribute to a decline in prospective memory. One study found that college students who drink heavily showed lower scores on time-based prospective memory. Additionally, those who experienced blackouts from drinking showed deficits in event-based prospective memory.

Research in people with schizophrenia showed a correlation between poor prospective memory and non-adherence to medication regimen. While there are many reasons someone might not take their medications, the study suggests that some patients simply can’t remember.

People with a brain injury often have possible memory problems. They may sincerely intend to perform a task, but simply can’t remember it. This may frustrate family members or health care providers, who may think the person is choosing not to follow instructions.

Parkinson’s patients have particular problems with time-based prospective memory. They know they have to do something, but it is difficult for them to judge the passage of time and they waste time doing it.

People with multiple sclerosis may also have difficulty remembering their appointments. Our study measured 110 multiple sclerosis patients who had 1,600 unique appointments. About 3% of those appointments (about 50 of them) were no-shows related to potential memory performance.

You may be surprised to learn that culture can also affect prospective memory. In a 2023 study, our team measured prospective memory in Spanish speakers. We found that differences in performance were affected by the degree of acculturation to American culture. This may reflect the fact that the tests were created in the US and therefore have a cultural bias, or it may be due to cultural differences, such as time perception.

Possible memory tricks

My colleagues and I have also been interested in studying techniques that could help improve prospective memory functioning.

We have been successful in improving the amount of time a person with brain injury can hold an intention in mind through rote repetition and visual imagery.

A rote repetition intervention might tell the participant, “In exactly one minute, please clap your hands.” As they achieve this, we slowly increase the time interval. Visual imagery involves imagining what will happen at the moment you need to complete the intention: what you will see, hear, and smell, for example.

You can also try visual images. If you have a watch or phone with a calendar and alarms, it’s obviously helpful to set those devices for tasks important to you. Make a short recording on your phone or take a photo to remember where your car is parked. There are also specific apps designed to remind you. Both Remember the Milk and Todoist have free versions.

If there is an item you don’t want to forget, place it in front of the door so you don’t miss it. If you use a calendar, keep it in a place you can see every morning. Place your phone, wallet, or briefcase in the back seat next to the car seat.

Routine can also help. If you have an important daily task, like homework or exercise, set aside the same amount of time each day for it.

Many people are helped by something called implementing intentions. Simply say out loud, “When situation X arises, I will do Y.”

For others, it is helpful to represent the intention as soon as you decide you want to do it. So if you want to remember to water your plants when you get home, mime doing it. Using the parts of your brain that control your muscles can help strengthen intention.

The good news is that most of the time prospective memory works well automatically. But with more research, those of us who study prospective memory will come to better understand when it fails and what to do about it.

This article was originally published in The conversation. Read the Original article.

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