Developing Intelligence

Prospective memory is “remembering to remember.” Despite the pervasiveness of this requirement in real-life, we know surprisingly little about the topic. In their new book, McDaniel & Einstein provide a direly needed review of this fascinating new field, providing important information for researchers, clinicians, and laypeople alike on how basic cognitive science is coming to a “big picture” understanding of prospective memory.

In some ways, it’s not so much a single topic as an amalgam of many different cognitive processes already studied in other domains. For example, prospective memory involves the formation of goals, memorization, and recall. Although these and other similarities belie the relationship of prospective memory to more traditional research topics, their interactions have not been well-addressed outside the field of prospective memory.

So it’s particularly exciting to see that McDaniel & Einstein are so successful in bringing all these constituent processes together in a coherent framework. To use an example in the book, traditional studies of recall cannot reveal the circumstances under which recall is initiated in the first place. Likewise, we understand task-switching in the laboratory, but have little idea how that translates to the real world, where task switches may be subtly-cued and the tasks themselves may be variable in their priority or distance from the current focus of attention. These are the kind of rich and virtually untouched theoretical issues that are torn open and revealed for all to see throughout the majority of this excellent book – along with obscure yet carefully-reviewed evidence bearing on these new and exciting questions.

Other chapters focus on the developmental trends of “remembering to remember,” the potential applications for this research, and the emerging cognitive neuroscience of prospective memory. The authors write very clearly, avoiding jargon and remaining casual while nonetheless maintaining the intellectual “pace” that is more commonly found in peer-reviewed journal articles. You may find yourself finishing the book more rapidly than you would have liked (it’s only about 230 relatively small pages). But then you can always read it a second time, as I plan to do.

The book maintains a very theory-oriented approach, and is less of a popular science book than a graduate-level course reader. Laypeople and academics outside of psychology will also appreciate McDaniel & Einstein’s rigorous scholarship, but may wish to evaluate their interest in the minutiae of prospective memory research before purchasing. “Prospective Memory” thus comes highly recommended to students of psychology who are curious about an up-and-coming area of research that is ripe for further work.


  1. #1 Neurozone
    May 17, 2007

    Thanks for the review. I’ve never known what to make of this concept of “prospective memory.” We plan to remember things at time A, which isn’t really memory per se, and then if we do manage to remember them at time B, it seems to me that it’s a particular sort of episodic memory (the memory of planning to remember, a sort of meta-memory). It’s definitely a human behavior worth studying (I hope the paradigms are at least somewhat ecologically valid), but I wonder if calling it by its own name, suggesting yet another fractionization of memory, is the best way to go?

  2. #2 CHCH
    May 17, 2007

    Agreed that ProM can be considered a kind of meta-memory, and that it is intimately bound up with planning. Einstein & McDaniel actually place a premium on ecological validity, not least b/c there’s a lot of older people who could benefit from applicable research 😉

    I also think that “planning” is a much better name for the field than “prospective memory.”

  3. #3 Dcduring
    May 17, 2007

    The focus in ProM is on remembering a planned action, not on the plan per se. It is definitely not important that you remember the experience of making the plan. In fact, I doubt that there is much of any evidence that that is *really* what we are doing when we remember to do something. Of course, in the current state of knowledge in ProM, it is unreasonable to expect there to me much empirical support for any theory beyond what Einstein and McDaniel have presented.

  4. #4 CHCH
    May 18, 2007

    ProM is a subset of the “planning” literature, since all planning in the real-world involves some delay between the plan and execution of the plan, and thus also requires ProM. (Studies of planning necessarily involve plan execution, as there’s no other way to know if planning is successful or not.)

    How do you know it’s not important that you remember the experience of making the plan? It seems unlikely that plan has become consolidated by the time it is executed, and so it should still be episodic.

  5. #5 MoonShadow
    June 10, 2007

    prospective memory interests me because i feel that it holds the clues to bridging the gap between short term memory and long term memory. I feel that this is somehow the bridge because sometimes we can remember to do something for the rest of our lives. Sometimes it becomes so routine it gets programmed into our habbits.

    I think i’m gonna get a copy if i can.

    Thanks for the review Chris =)

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