What it means to Remember to Remember

When Winston Churchill said, “Let our advance worrying become our advance thinking and planning,” He was probably referring to prospective memory. Here’s a quick personal story…

I left my office on Friday and walked to my car. I put my laptop, a book and printed notes in the back seat and put my handbag on the front seat. Nonchalantly, I drove to pick my son up from soccer. Afterwards we went to Publix and picked up some groceries and then we drove home. I gathered my handbag from the front seat and groceries from the trunk and felt I had no reason to open the door to the back seat. In fact though, if I had done that, I would have seen the laptop and the paperwork and would have taken them inside the house with me.  It was  two hours later when I sat down to check possible flights to San Francisco that I realized that my laptop was still in the car. The thought of using the laptop made me think of the laptop still being in the car. I know this is a long-winded story, but does this happen to you?

Forgetting to pick up the laptop from my car and bringing it in is a minor glitch but if I run into such ‘failure to remember to do’ glitches 17 times during the day it could be a nightmare. This is what happens to folks with Executive Function disorder.

Teaching thinking and study strategies to students with Executive Function disorder requires me to train them to acknowledge the fact that “they will forget.”  This very ability to remind oneself to “remember to remember” is called Prospective Memory. During the day, our brain is bustling with ideas that need follow up at a later time. For example:

  • Call Stacy back after getting home
  • Get started with the paper I’m writing before 3:00 PM on Sunday
  • Return the library book by Saturday (to avoid a late fee)
  • Set the recording for a new TV show before it airs on Monday
  • Get email addresses for John and his wife in order to send them an e-vite for dinner
  • Reply to Anne’s email about carpool for next Friday

Prospective Memory is an internal process of remembering to perform an intended action in the future at a specific time without any direct prompt from the outside world. There has to be a strong intention to pursue the initial intended thought.

The idea occurs to us at “Time One,” but it needs to be executed at “Time Two.” The act of remembering to remember from “Time One” to “Time One” is called Rehearsal. Here’s how Prospective Memory works:

  1. Time One = Form an intention. (Example, I would like to pick up my prescription.)
  2. Choose Time 10 = Set out a future time frame. (Example, I would like to do this on Thursday after lunch but before my meeting at 4:00 PM.)
  3. Time Two – Nine = Engage in rehearsal. (Example, remind yourself to remember from now until Thursday, from Thursday breakfast till Thursday lunch.)
  4. Time10 = Complete the intended action. (Example, actually go to CVS and pick it up at 3:40 PM as you are driving to John’s office for a meeting.)

When an individual suffers from Executive Function disorder, they run into several glitches during Time One, Time Two – Nine and Time 10 because of inattention, poor judgment or poorly formed intentions.

Daily conversations are riddled with casual references to memory, reminders, and forgetfulness where people often use these terms interchangeably. However, it is important to distinguish Prospective Memory from Episodic Memory or Semantic Memory.

Episodic Memory refers to autobiographical memory for events and experiences that can be recalled. For example, recalling what you did over summer of 2012, remembering what gift you gave Susie at her wedding, etc.

Semantic Memory refers to the mental record that we create of facts and concepts, which help build our knowledge about the world around us. For example, remembering how many ounces in a liter or recalling the MVP of the last Superbowl.

It is a fact-we all forget. But forgetting to pick up a present for your wife at least a day ahead is different from forgetting your wife’s date of birth or for that matter, forgetting that you HAVE a wife!

Research describes two important and yet different types of Prospective Memory tasks:

  1. Event-based prospective memory tasks where a person has to remember to do something in response to a target prompt which can be an image or an event. How well we remember to carry out event-based tasks depends on its familiarity, specificity and uniqueness.  Of course, it also helps if there is a strong mental association between the target event and an intended action.
  2. Time-based prospective memory tasks where a person has to remember to do something after a certain time interval. For example, take out cookies from the oven in 17 minutes. Or, renew your driver’s license by August 23rd, which is in seven more months. Or, submit your college application by 11:59pm on December 15th.

Research suggests that once an intention is firmed up in your mind and a memory trace is created, people rehearse without any apparent external triggers. They do this more so for time-based tasks than for event-based tasks.

Treatment of Executive Function disorder must entail training of Prospective Memory skills. Breaking the process down and helping students understand how to create futuristic intentions can yield success. The training process needs to address explicit rules of “remembering to remember” and modeling of “how-to” and engage in three distinct rehearsals.

So next time, if you have a disorganized yet brilliant student who has a dazzling memory and can name capitals of most of the countries, state obscure facts about puffer fish, or quote Shakespeare, get him to accept the baffling truth about his own Executive Dysfunction: “I don’t always remember that I often forget to remind myself to remember!”