Prospective memory: characteristics and associated mental processes

Prospective memory: characteristics and associated mental processes

What would we do without a memory? Memory shapes our life history and is part of our identity. It is true that when we are spoken about memory, we tend to think about the past. However, there is another type of memory oriented towards the future: the prospective memory .

This type of memory allows us to store plans and intentions for the future. For example, it allows us to remember what to do tomorrow, plan the day and carry out the plans we have made. In this article we will know what this type of memory consists of "of the future", its components and what it serves for.

What is prospective memory?

Memory is a function of the brain that allows us to use the information in our environment (and inside us) in various ways: allows us to encode it, store it and retrieve it . According to some theories, memory arises from the repetitive synaptic connections that are formed between our neurons, thus creating neural networks.

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

However, memory is not only about knowing and remembering things from the past, it also allows us to store in our brain plans and intentions that are oriented to the future. Two authors, Kvavilashvili and Ellis, in 1996, gave a name to this type of memory: it is called prospective memory.

They defined it as "the memory of doing something at a particular time in the future and the execution of the previously formulated plan". That is, that includes two components: one more theoretical (remembering) and another more practical (executing the plan thought out) .


Taxonomic models consider prospective memory as a part of episodic or autobiographical memory; the latter, in turn, is considered to be divided into retrospective (past-oriented) and prospective (future-oriented) memory.

According to these models, autobiographical memory makes us aware of our past, and prepares us to act in the future . This is considered an important evolutionary advance, since the information of what we have lived is fundamental for self-awareness.

Self-consciousness includes a unique, personal and proper past and a future also proper, which makes us identify or not with what we are living and remembering.

What is this memory for?

On a cognitive and experiential level, we have already seen how memory plays an essential role in all of us. Specifically, prospective memory also plays a fundamental role in our cognition, since it allows us to perform efficiently when planning and developing everyday activities .

When we include certain new activities or actions in our daily life (non-routine actions), we do so thanks to previous intentions. These intentions need control and planning to carry out the actions we want to perform, and this is achieved thanks to the prospective memory and the different executive functions.


Some authors have tried to analyse the components that make up the prospective memory, with the aim of facilitating its evaluation. Some of them are:

1. Meta-knowledge

It is the knowledge necessary and specific to carry out the action .

2. Planning

Formulating the plan is essential to facilitate the implementation of the action.

3. Monitoring

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

4. Content of the memory

Remember the content of the action to be performed.

5. Compliance

We must agree to carry out the action.

6. Checking the result

It is also a matter of monitoring the final result , i.e. checking whether we have met the previous result expectations, following the formulated plans.

The role of retrospective memory

Prospective memory tasks also have a retrospective (past-oriented) memory component. Let us think of an example to illustrate this: we may forget to give a message to our father when we see him, because we have forgotten the intention to do so (prospective memory) or because we cannot remember what we had to say to him (retrospective memory).

In this way, the prospective report would include sub-processes such as recording of intent, maintenance of information, execution of intent and evaluation of the objective .

Relationship to executive functions

It has been shown in some works that prospective memory has some relation to executive functions. The executive functions allow us to organize, plan, review and evaluate the behaviours necessary to adapt effectively to the environment; moreover, they are a guide that allows us to achieve goals.

This relationship refers to the fact that prospective memory requires executive control processes to work; let’s imagine I have to call the dentist at 12 o’clock to make an appointment. I’m more likely to remember to call if I have a toothache at 11. Therefore, if the system receives continuous information regarding what to do, this information will operate as a signal that will update the system to be more effective.

Thus, the executive functions are of great importance, since they allow the person to constantly review and evaluate the information to “update” what is happening to him, and this allows him to easily remember what to do. In other words, this mental “check-up” has a lot to do with both concepts: prospective memory and executive functions (since it allows the person to evaluate what he has done and what he has left to do).

Bibliographic references:

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

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