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Development of Prospection about Future Events

In recent years, we have begun to examine the relation between the ability to remember the past and the ability to envision the future. Recent research suggests that episodic memory may be fundamentally linked to the ability to imagine one’s future. Indeed the function of episodic memory may be to facilitate the mental construction of possible future scenarios, allowing for action in the present that will benefit their future selves.

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Episodic memory follows a protracted developmental time course, with improvements in the ability to consciously recollect one’s past being observed throughout childhood and adolescence. If episodic memory and future thinking are fundamentally intertwined, a developmental relation between the two capacities ought to be observed, such that future thinking should follow the same developmental trajectory as episodic memory (improving throughout childhood), and individual difference in the ability to episodically remember one’s past should be related to the ability to imagine one’s future. This is exactly what we found in a recently published study comparing 5-, 7-, and 9-year olds’ and adults’ narratives about past events and anticipated future events (Coughlin, Lyons, & Ghetti, 2014).

We are currently conducting a series of new studies aimed at examining the extent to which episodic prospection of future events differs from engaging in acts of pure imagination of make-believe events, or engaging in semantic anticipation of future events (I.e. foreseeing what will generally happen when certain conditions are present). We are also examining the relationship between episodic prospection and achievement in school settings. We expect that children who can vividly anticipate positive educational outcomes will demonstrate more persistence in difficult and frustrating tasks. This work is funded by an award from the John Templeton Foundation.