Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Component Processes Underlying Future Thinking

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Component Processes Underlying Future Thinking

Article excerpt

This study sought to investigate the component processes underlying the ability to imagine future events, using an individual-differences approach. Participants completed several tasks assessing different aspects of future thinking (i.e., fluency, specificity, amount of episodic details, phenomenology) and were also assessed with tasks and questionnaires measuring various component processes that have been hypothesized to support future thinking (i.e., executive processes, visual-spatial processing, relational memory processing, self-consciousness, and time perspective). The main results showed that executive processes were correlated with various measures of future thinking, whereas visual-spatial processing abilities and time perspective were specifically related to the number of sensory descriptions reported when specific future events were imagined. Furthermore, individual differences in self-consciousness predicted the subjective feeling of experiencing the imagined future events. These results suggest that future thinking involves a collection of processes that are related to different facets of future-event representation.

A remarkable feature of the human mind is its capacity to momentarily disengage from the immediate environment in order to contemplate hypothetical future scenarios (Suddendorf & Corballis, 1997; Wheeler, Stuss, & Tulving, 1997). This capacity to envision possible future events (hereafter, referred to as future thinking) has a strong adaptive value, allowing one, for example, to consider potential consequences prior to acting and, hence, to override current needs in favor of longer term goals (Boyer, 2008; Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007; Tulving, 2005). Research has shown that future-oriented thoughts are pervasive in daily life (Klinger & Cox, 1987) and serve important functions, such as planning, decision making, and emotion regulation (D'Argembeau, Renaud, & Van der Linden, in press). In spite of this ubiquity and functional significance, the precise cognitive mechanisms underlying future thinking remain largely unexplored to date, although increased theoretical and empirical attention has been turned toward this issue in the past few years (e.g., Atance & O'Neill, 2001; D'Argembeau & Van der Linden, 2004; Gilbert & Wilson, 2007; Schacter, Addis, & Buckner, 2008; Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007; Szpunar & McDermott, 2008; Tulving, 2005). The purpose of the present study was to investigate the relative contributions of various component processes to the ability to imagine future events. Before detailing the specific aims of the study and the approach used, we first briefly review empirical data that have revealed that the imagination of future events critically depends on episodic memory, and we then present recently proposed theoretical hypotheses regarding the component processes involved in future thinking.

Evidence from various lines of research in psychology and cognitive neuroscience has now accumulated to indicate that remembering the past and imagining the future are intimately related (for recent reviews, see Schacter et al., 2008; Szpunar, 2010). First, there is evidence that individuals who present with episodic memory deficits have difficulties in imagining future events. This is most strikingly the case in amnesic patients (Hassabis, Kumaran, Vann, & Maguire, 2007; Klein, Loftus, & Kihlstrom, 2002; Tulving, 1985), but the relationship between episodic memory and future thinking abilities has also been observed in other populations, including older adults (Addis, Wong, & Schacter, 2008), patients with Alzheimer's disease (Addis, Sacchetti, Ally, Budson, & Schacter, 2009), depressed patients (Williams et al., 1996), and patients with schizophrenia (D'Argembeau, Raffard, & Van der Linden, 2008). Developmental research has also revealed that episodic memory and future thinking emerge at the same time, between approximately 3 and 5 years of age (Atance & Meltzoff, 2005; Suddendorf & Busby, 2005). …

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