Memory, Social Cognition, and Predicting the Future


A recent article in Harvard Magazine reports on the research of psychology professor, Daniel Schater, who is delving into  memory, social cognition and how the mind imagines the future.

From the article:

During the past decade, Schacter says, a revolution has occurred in the field of memory science: researchers have shown that memory is responsible for much more than the simple recall of facts or the sensation of reliving events from the past. “Memory is not just a readout,” he explains. “It is a tool that’s used by the brain to bring past experience to bear when thinking about future situations.”

In fact, Schacter continues, memory and imagination involve virtually identical mental processes; both rely on a specific system known as the “default network,” previously thought to be activated only when recalling the past.

Of course, this makes sense. Why wouldn’t the brain utilize its resource of past experiences to anticipate the future and to imagine possibilities? Schater and colleagues began to wonder if these processes applied to social cognition and how individuals might predict other people’s behaviors.

They developed and implemented an experiment to determine what parts of the brains were activated when participants were tasked with thinking about how a person might behave in a variety of different situations.

Again, from the article:

The researchers concluded that memory and social cognition therefore work in concert when individuals hypothesize about the future behavior of others. The brain regions responsible for forming “personality models” and assigning them identities are intrinsically linked to the memory/imagination systems that simulate the past and future.

While it is too premature to draw any conclusions about possible implications for education and learning environments, it is worth noting that students, who are deeply embedded in dynamic and sometimes quite challenging social situations, are employing a number of cognitive functions throughout their day. When considering the complexity of the mental processes being utilized, it is no wonder that so many students find the kind of schooling that focuses primarily on fact memorization to be mind numbingly boring.

Perhaps this vein of research can lead to a better understanding of empathy and what types of experiences might build up students’ brains with the sorts of memories that help them better predict and imagine the future they want for themselves.

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