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Psychologists to study prospective memory at LRC

10/22/2009 – Jeremy Craig

ATLANTA — A team of scientists at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center (LRC) recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore prospective memory — how humans and animals plan and remember things they need to do in the future, a rarely studied area in nonhuman animals.

Senior Research Scientist Michael Beran, Emily D. Klein and Theodore A. Evans, in collaboration with Giles O. Einstein of Furman University, will use the three-year, continuing $400,523 grant to study the comparative foundations of these future-oriented cognitive processes.

Though prospective memory has rarely been studied in nonhuman animals, it is a prominent research area in human cognition.

Beran noted that people spend large amounts of time thinking about things they have experienced in the past and what they might encounter in the future. This can be very helpful in new situations when someone is not sure how to behave.

“Planning for the future, and remembering to carry out those plans, helps people prepare for things that are not immediately important but could be important hours, days, or even years from now,” Beran said. “Although this ability has long been reserved for humans, it may also be that animals show capacities for future-oriented thought.”

In fact, it has been argued that animals are “stuck in time,” and they cannot think about past events or future scenarios because their behavior is affected only by their current needs and surroundings, such as hunger or nearby predators.

If the LRC scientists find this to be true, this would indicate that future-oriented thought is a unique aspect of human behavior.  However, Beran and colleagues expect the animals to show some capacity for planning and prospective memory, and such evidence will provide a better understanding of the evolutionary foundations of human memory and behavior. 

The LRC is one of six research centers in the Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences, Georgia State University.