The Creative Advantage: How Vivid Memories of the Past Help Predictions for the Future

"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards..." - Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

A fascinating new area of cognitive neuroscience has been looking at the link between personal or episodic memory and future prediction.

Episodic memory is an autobiographical that encodes specific times, places, sensory details and context, in contrast to semantic or non-personal memory that encodes facts (like 3 + 2 = 5 or the definition of a shoe) that can deal with more abstract or representational information that now may only be distantly linked to prior experiences.

When researchers looked at the brain regions involved in looking at the past, they found many of the same regions activated in response to prompts to imagine events in the future.

It was the cognitive neuroscientist Tulving who first noticed that an amnestic patient who had no recollection of any event that he had personally experienced also could not answer questions about events he might experience in the future. It was Suddendorf and Corballis who raised the idea that mental time travel into the past was closely linked to time travel into the future.

Any other significance to the brain areas found to be activated into future visualization experiments? Maybe - these are the same areas important for theory of mind or thinking about the perspectives of others, and spatial navigation tasks.

It's not hard to find examples of highly creative forward-thinking adults who seem to have had this prodigious memory pattern (Nikola Tesla, Isaac Asimov, Leonardo Da Vinci etc.) but amazingly we think we see some of these budding versions in our clinic because of our interest in highly gifted and twice exceptional (gifted with LD) learners.

Vivid personal memory doesn't always translated into academic success in the early years of education - because it's usually impersonal or rote memory that's emphasized in school. Vivid visualizers can be easily distracted, lost in their daydreams, or more concerned with personal trivia (what Toby brought to school, the games on Sarah's DS, etc.) or personal experimentation (homemade catapults) than the steps for rounding decimals or regurgitating dates and names for a history test.

But because personal memory is so closely linked to future prediction pathways, shouldn't we think about the implications for education? There's a lot concern these days about American students not being prepared for the new millennial global workplace. Perhaps we spend too little time cultivating rich personal experiences, the development of spatial intelligence, and future thinking.

Episodic Foresight pdf
Episodic simulations of future events pdf


  1. A fascinating new area of cognitive neuroscience has been looking at the link between personal or episodic memory and future prediction.

  2. very interesting. So what does this tell us about memories created by watching movies, television, video games, fiction books? I know that after watching Jaws when I was a child, it was a bit harder to go swimming (understatement). How is all this fiction and media rewriting all of our futures?