The Temporal Orientation of Memory: Professor Stan Klein’s Influential Research Recognized by Leading Journals

December 21, 2016

Stan Klein’s paper The Temporal Orientation of Memory: It's Time for a Change of Direction (2013) recently was recognized by the Journal of Applied Memory and Cognition (impact factor = 2.06) as one of the top 5 most cited papers in the journal’s history.

The paper argues that psychological research, philosophical analysis and common wisdom share the view that memory is subjectively positioned toward the past: That is, memory enables one to become re-acquainted with objects and events that transpired in one’s life.

Klein calls this assumption into question. Memory, he argues, has been designed by natural selection not to relive the past, but rather to anticipate and plan for future contingencies. This is not to say memory makes no reference to the past. But past-oriented subjectivity is a by-product of a system designed by natural selection to help us face and respond to the "now and the next".

Klein discusses the implications of this temporal realignment for research agendas as well as the limitations of experiments designed to explore memory by focusing on its retentive capabilities.

Klein also was recognized by the journal WIREs Cognitive Science (impact factor = 1.68) for having the 2nd most cited paper in the journal’s history — The complex act of projecting oneself into the future (2013). The paper is a theoretical and empirical analysis of Future-Oriented Mental Time Travel (FMTT). Beginning with seminal papers in the late 1990s and early 2000s by Tulving, Klein, Dalla Barba and Atance, the study of FMTT has developed into a thriving research enterprise — with several hundred papers appearing in just the past 15 years (Klein recently co-edited the first volume on the role of memory in imagining the future: Oxford University Press, 2016).

While organisms vary greatly in the complexity and temporal reach of their ability to consider the future, all living things possessed of motility and reasonably sophisticated neural function must, of adaptive necessity, be able to orient toward and react to personally relevant possibilities. FMTT enables one to break free of the grasp of the perpetual “now” and consider how things might be in the “next.” The adaptive functionality of such a mental competence is immense: To be able to imagine, and anticipate contingencies that cannot be known with certainty — but whose consequences have fundamental significance for survival — provides an enormous selective advantage. Indeed, several theorists in cognitive and neuroscience recently have championed the position that an organism’s ability to anticipate and plan for the future is a major driving force of cortical evolution.

Klein’s two papers have had a significant impact on (a) how we think about the construct “memory”, and (b) the role memory plays in our capacity to orient toward the future (rather than our capacity to re-live our past).