A Project of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation

“Memory of the future”: An essay on the temporal organization of conscious awareness.

Published: April, 1985

Investigator(s): Other Investigator(s)

Researcher(s): Ingvar, D. H.


The classical tripartite concept of time divided into past/present/future components, has been applied to the analysis of the functional cerebral substrate of conscious awareness. Attempts have been made to localize and to separate the neuronal machineries which are responsible for the experience of a past, a present, and a future. One's experience of a past is obviously related to one's memories. Memory mechanisms (in the conventional sense) have a well-known functional relation to superficial and deep parts of the temporal lobe. Some such mechanisms presumably have a more widespread distribution. The experience of a present or a "Now-situation" is mediated by the sensory input. This input also exerts a role for conscious awareness of an inner Now-situation, independent of current afferent impulses, as shown by numerous observations on sensory deprivation. The main discussion is devoted to the experience of a future. Evidence is summarized that the frontal/prefrontal cortex handles the temporal organization of behaviour and cognition, and that the same structures house the action programs or plans for future behaviour and cognition. As these programs can be retained and recalled, they might be termed "memories of the future". It is suggested that they form the basis for anticipation and expectation as well as for the short and long-term planning of a goal-directed behavioural and cognitive repertoire. This repertoire for future use is based upon experiences of past events and the awareness of a Now-situation, and it is continuously rehearsed and optimized. Lesions or dysfunctions of the frontal/prefrontal cortex give rise to states characterized by a "loss of future", with consequent indifference, inactivity, lack of ambition, and inability to foresee the consequences of one's future behaviour. It is concluded that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for the temporal organization of behaviour and cognition due to its seemingly specific capacity to handle serial information and to extract causal relations from such information. Possibly the serial action programs which are stored in the prefrontal cortex are also used by the brain as templates for extracting meaningful (serial) information from the enormous, mainly non-serial, random, sensory noise to which the brain is constantly exposed. Without a "memory of the future" such an extraction cannot take place.

JTF grant funded: No