Building a Future from Memory

With the recent publication of Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein, it’s hard to avoid someone, somewhere (the New York Times is a safe bet) writing on the ins and outs of memory. While I don't feel like I need to say anything more on that particular topic (my summary in three word: build memory palaces), I do want to take the opportunity afforded by the high pitch of current interest in memory—and in ways to enhance it—to address an issue that is central to decision making: The importance of remembering the past for acting in the future. 

Does the past play a role in the future?

Can memory actually be a necessary component of future planning, without which such planning would be impossible? The centrality of memory for imagining the future is the assumption governing the current research of Dan Schacter, a prominent memory researcher at Harvard who spoke last week at the Psychology Department Colloquium at Columbia.

We’ve long known that memory is imperfect. It’s not like the impression of a signet ring on wax imagined by Aristotle, but rather a more fluid mode of recollection that can change with time and may never have captured the exact image of the past to begin with. While this fluidity may strike some as dangerous and something to be avoided, Schacter points out that it comes with many benefits. One of the reasons that memory may be hazy and flexible, according to Schacter, is that the vagueness and the malleability allow for a constructive approach to simulating the future.  This ability, in turn, is crucial to any sort of meaningful decision making. We have to be able to visualize what will happen, be it in the next few minutes or the next few months or even the next few (and not so few) years in order to decide on and commit to a proper plan of action in the present. And according to Schacter, one of the main reasons we are able to do this is because of our memory for past events. 

Learning from amnesia

KC was an amnesic patient with whom Schacter worked briefly some years back. His amnesia for his past life was complete. He could not recall events, people, places, anything that marked his life before the onset of his amnesia (the result of a motorcycle accident). What Schacter discovered was that he was likewise unable to picture or plan for the future. In response to the simple-seeming question of "What are you going to be doing tomorrow?" he would become confused and taciturn, unable to grasp the significance of the query or formulate a proper reply. If pressed and encouraged, he would perhaps be able to come up with something like, "I will probably eat lunch" or "I might have dinner," but that was the best you were likely to get. KC's total inability to construct a future prompted Schacter to wonder if our memory might not be an essential component not just of remembering things that have already occurred, but of planning for or imagining those that might occur. It was not until recently, however, that he took this hunch up in any systematic way.

In a series of behavioral and imaging studies published over the last few years, the Schacter lab has demonstrated the close connection between memory and constructing future events. Schacter refers to this idea as the Constructive Episodic Simulation Hypothesis. The better our recall for the past, the better we are at constructing a hypothetical future. And just as memory for more distant events tends to become hazier, while that for recent events tends to be more specific and filled with details, so too does our construction of an immediate future tend to be more concrete than that for more distant events. The Schacter lab has even demonstrated that there is a specific area of the brain, the anterior hippocampus, that is selectively involved in future construction (and in simulating a counterfactual past; in other words, it allows for a creative recombination of our base of knowledge into something that does not yet exist or has not before existed).

The significance for decision making

But what does this mean specifically for decision making and decision makers? We need to be able to construct future scenarios in order to decide how best to act in the present, to be able to play out alternatives in our head and imagine consequences of actions we have not even begun to take in order to know if and when and how to take them, or not take them, as the case may be. 

Consider the implications for goal-setting. The concept of memory as crucial for imagining the future goes a long way toward explaining why we might find it difficult to set more long-term goals, and easier to focus instead on the immediate term. If it’s easier for us to imagine the immediate future with greater detail, in more vivid and concrete terms, we may be more likely to commit to something that matters in that context. Conversely, if the more distant future seems vague and lacking in the specificity of a shorter timeframe, it might be more difficult, or not seem as pressing, to commit to something so abstract. So, our decisions might be unfairly skewed toward the more easily imaginable, or constructible, to use Schacter’s term, immediate future, and away from the less easy to construct distant future. By virtue of memory, immediate goals may thus outweigh long-term considerations.

Does better memory equal better decisions?

Some interesting questions to consider, that would help determine just how important is this whole concept of memory affecting our ability to imagine futures of different closeness, range from the direct to the applied. In the first camp are questions like, do people with better memories find it easier to commit to distant future goals? Do they feel closer to their future selves? If we improve our memory through training, will we also improve our ability to think long-term and commit to longer future goals? And conversely, if you have a poor memory, are you less likely to take future states into account, and have, to put it in decision making jargon, a steeper discount curve? In the second camp are issues that apply to a variety of practical concerns. For example, in finance, do the best traders, hedge fund managers, and financiers also have superior memory abilities? Does remembering the past in vivid detail help them make better choices, with greater foresight? Or, is selective amnesia for certain market events actually helpful in this case, allowing for greater decisiveness and quick action?

Whatever the answer to these questions might end up being, with a greater understanding of the crucial role that memory plays in the future planning process, perhaps we won't underestimate the value of our ability to remember and flexibly access the past. It's the old adage of learning from history so as not to repeat it all over again, but on a much more personal, and I would argue more accurate, level.

So, as we think about the future, about what we might do, or might want to do, or think might be a good idea to do, we would do well to engage the past more actively than we otherwise might. And here’s a new application to Foer’s memory techniques: improve your memory for the past and you very well might improve your ability to make better decisions in the future. 


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