Remembering the Future

Reconstructing the past and pre-remembering the future

Posted Jun 17, 2013

How should I spend my lottery winnings? I haven’t won yet, but I can see myself winning. Thinking about the future can be fun. What am I doing tonight, where will we go for our summer vacation, and how will I spend those mythical lottery winnings? I can almost see what will happen and what I will feel when I win the lottery. But how is it possible when I haven’t ever won the lottery before?

Thinking about the future is one of the critical features of being human. We plan. We plan meals, weekends, vacations, and retirements. But we do more than simply plan—we see the future. We imagine what will happen, hear what people might say, and feel how we’ll react.

Thinking about the future is similar to remembering the past. When I think about possible future events, I do the same mental work as when I remember. I’m just remembering a future that hasn’t happened yet.

Episodic remembering is memory for particular events that we have experienced. When Endel Tulving defined episodic memory, he described it as mental time travel (you can read my earlier post on time travel). We re-experience the past when we remember. Sometimes we can think about our past and simply access the knowledge. I know where I used to live, where I went to college, and who my boss was in my first post-doctoral job. I can provide that information relatively easily (although some facts about my life are more challenging to retrieve than others). But I can also remember my past. When I remember particular episodes, I do more than simply access knowledge. Remembering is re-experiencing. I see the events, hear the sounds, and feel the emotions.

Imagining the future involves the same capabilities as remembering the past. I could simply list the things I’ll do this weekend. But I can also imagine, re-experience, and essentially pre-remember those events. I see what will happen, I hear what people will say, and I feel the emotions that I anticipate feeling during the event.

When we remember, we reconstruct the past. We don’t open a computer file and pull up a perfect copy of what happened. We construct our memories based on what did happen and we use other information as well. The past we remember isn’t the past that actually happened – sometimes we create memories that are more false than true.

Constructing the future relies on the same memory capabilities. We use information from past events and general knowledge, stir that information into new forms, and construct a memory for a future event. I imagine visiting one of my sons this weekend by building possible events from other visits. I also use general knowledge about my son, myself, and where he lives. When I imagine the future, I do the same mental work as when I remember the past. I reconstruct the past and I remember the future.

Daniel Schacter and his colleagues have been exploring several aspects of remembering the future. Imagining the future, for example, involves many of the same brain areas as remembering the past. Your brain activates the hippocampus and medial temporal lobe for all mental time travel – both when you visit the past and go back to the future.

Additionally, problems that impact the ability to remember have similar effects on imagining the future. People with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of anterograde amnesia show an inability to remember events since the onset of amnesia. They also have extreme trouble imagining both the immediate future (what will you do this afternoon) and more distant future (what you will do next week). People with depression often show a generality bias when remembering the past. They have difficulty remembering specific events and tend to remember general classes of events and knowledge instead. Depressed people have similar problems imagining specific future events. They can’t remember or imagine the details that distinguish particular events (going to see the new Star Trek movie with my family at the neighborhood cinema) from the general category (going to the movies).

We imagine the future in the same way that we reconstruct the past. When I imagine some future event, I build that event from similar past experiences and my general knowledge. I remember a future that hasn’t actually happened yet. Remembering that possible future allows me to plan, a particularly human capability. What will I do with my lottery winnings? I’m not sure, but I can imagine lots of wonderful possibilities.

I am reminded of the famous George Santayana quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Perhaps we should update this on a more personal level: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to live without imagining the future.