Prospective memory

What is memory?

In the field of psychology, memory is characterized as the process by which the human mind encodes stores and retrieves information. Information is first encoded through a process involving sensory information. It is then stored, which means that the information is maintained over a consistent period of time. Finally, the information is retrieved from storage consciously or unconsciously. The two common types of memory are short term memory and long term memory. Short term memory refers to memory which has a retrieval period of up to one minute, while long term memory can be retrieved for years afterward.

What is prospective memory?

Prospective memory is characterized as remembering to perform a certain planned action or behavior at a designated or appropriate time. Prospective memories occur countless times during the daily schedule or life of an individual and can range from simple or almost unnoticeable tasks to situations that may be considered more serious, life-or-death situations. Examples of prospective memories which may occur during daily life are: remembering to put a soda bottle cap back on after you set it down, remembering to reply to a text message received from a friend, remembering to return a library book, remembering to take medication, and so on. Prospective memory is essentially remembering to perform a certain action in the future at a certain appropriate time. Such as, for example, remembering to take medication after eating breakfast and before leaving for work.

The two types of prospective memory

There are two main types of prospective memory: event based and time based. Event based prospective memory is characterized as remembering to perform a specific action as it relates to specific events or circumstances. In the case of event based prospective memory, the memory is triggered by circumstances which are related to that memory. An example of event based prospective memory would be driving by a farmer’s market and remembering that you need to pick up fruits and vegetables on the way home. Time based prospective memory, on the other hand, involves remembering to perform a certain action at a specific time. An example of time based prospective memory would be seeing that it is 7:59 pm and remembering that your favorite television show will start at 8:00 pm.

Researchers believe that event based prospective memory may be more successful than time based prospective memory. In a study performed in 1997, participants were given an event-based cue and a time-based cue and were told to press a button every time those cues appeared during the experiment. The researchers found that people performed better when confronted with the event-based cue, or event-based task, than the cue which was time based. This research indicates that prospective memory which is prompted by an external cue, like an event based cue, will result in a better performance or in a more successful action. For example, according to this 1997 study, an individual is more likely to remember to return a library book if they drive past the library on the way home than they are if they tell themselves to return the library book at 3:00 pm on a certain date.

What factors can affect prospective memory?

There are many factors which can potentially affect prospective memory. The most common of these factors are age, stress, and substance use. A 2010 study comparing the event based prospective memory of children aged 7 to 10 years and young adults from 18 to 30 years found that the people in the young adults group had better prospective memory performance of children. A 2009 study comparing the effectiveness of time based prospective memory among young adults aged 18 to 30 years old and older adults aged 60 to 75 years old and old-old adults aged 76 to 90 years old found that young adults had the best time based prospective memory performance. In general, it has been found that prospective memory improves from childhood to young adulthood but there is actually a decline in prospective memory performance in late adulthood.

Stress has been shown to affect all types of memory and prospective memory is no exception. Research has shown that stress can have a significant impact on prospective memory. A 2002 study on the impact of a high job workload and prospective memory involved comparing the effects of workload levels, stress and prospective memory on fifty five participants. The participants were assigned to one of four different task groups, which were characterized as: low workload-low stress; high workload-high stress; low workload-high stress; high workload-low stress. All participants were instructed to perform the same prospective memory task, while those in the high workload groups were also instructed to complete an arithmetic task, which had lower difficulty in the high workload-low stress group, at the same time. The results of the study showed that prospective memory was weaker in the groups which had a high workload or high stress. The low workload-low stress group showed the most success, while the other groups–which all contained at least high stress or a high workload–did poorly in comparison.

Another common factor which may affect prospective memory is various forms of substance abuse, including cigarette smoking, alcohol and cannabis. Research in 2012 indicated that persistent smoking over a long period of time was associated with a progressive decline in prospective memory, especially in cases where nicotine was ingested in high doses. The consumption of alcohol has been associated with memory deficiencies in general and prospective memory in particular can be affected by an excessive consumption of alcohol on a daily or weekly basis.

Cannabis has been shown to be associated with various cognitive impairments, such as lower processing speeds, as well as general memory performance. A 2010 study involving a video based prospective memory task concluded that the participants who used cannabis had significantly worse performances on the prospective memory task when compared to the participants who did not use cannabis.

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