Prospective Memory

Prospective memory: People spend a lot of time thinking about the past and the future (what is sometimes called mental time travel).  Being able to remember the past, including what, how, and when things happened, can be very helpful in new situations when one is not sure how to behave.  Planning for the future, and remembering to carry out those plans, helps people prepare for things that are not immediately important but could be important hours, days, or even years from now.  This ability to flexibly plan for the future has long been reserved for humans.  In fact, it has been argued that animals are “stuck in time,” and they cannot think about the past or future because their behavior is affected only by their current needs and surroundings.  If true, this would indicate a unique aspect of human memory and behavior.  However, animals may show capacities for mental time travel, and such evidence would provide a better understanding of the evolutionary foundations of human memory and behavior.  This project includes new tests of future-oriented thought and behavior in humans and three primate species (chimpanzees, rhesus monkeys, and capuchin monkeys).  This project tests each species’ ability to anticipate future situations and plan future actions so as to determine continuities and discontinuities in the prospective memory and planning abilities of humans and other primates.  In some cases, primates may show that they can plan for future situations that are different from present ones, and this performance will be directly compared to human performance.  This project will provide a better understanding of the evolutionary emergence, as well as the limits, of planning and future-oriented thought and memory in humans and primates.  These studies offer new ideas about the nature of primate memory, the beginnings of planned behavior, and the nature of prospective memory. 
This research is supported by the National Science Foundation (BCS – 0924811).