Cognitive Processing

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 87–94 | Cite as

The development of episodic future thinking in middle childhood

  • F. Ferretti
  • A. Chiera
  • S. Nicchiarelli
  • I. Adornetti
  • R. Magni
  • S. Vicari
  • G. Valeri
  • A. Marini
Research Report


The ability to imagine future events (episodic future thinking—EFT) emerges in preschoolers and further improves during middle childhood and adolescence. In the present study, we focused on the possible cognitive factors that affect EFT and its development. We assessed the ability to mentally project forward in time of a large cohort of 135 6- to 11-year-old children through a task with minimal narrative demands (the Picture Book Trip task adapted from Atance and Meltzoff in Cogn Dev 20(3):341–361. doi:10.1016/j.cogdev.2005.05.001, 2005) in order to avoid potential linguistic effects on children’s performance. The results showed that this task can be used to assess the development of EFT at least until the age of 8. Furthermore, EFT scores correlated with measures of phonological short-term and verbal working memory. These results support the possibility that cognitive factors such as working memory play a key role in EFT.


Cognitive development Mental time travel Episodic future thinking Working memory 


Author Contributions

For the specific concerns of the Italian Academy, we specify that: FF planned the study, adapted the original tests, supervised the recruitment of the participants and wrote the paper; AC, SN and IA contributed to the adaptation of the original tests, recruited the participants, administered the tasks and wrote the paper; RM recruited the participants, administered the tasks and contributed to the interpretation of the data; SV and GV supervised the recruitment of the participants and the administration of the tasks and contributed to the interpretation of the data; AM supervised the recruitment of the participants and the administration of the tasks, ran the statistics and wrote the paper.


  1. Abram M, Picard L, Navarro B, Piolino P (2014) Mechanisms of remembering the past and imagining the future: new data from autobiographical memory tasks in a lifespan approach. Conscious Cogn 29:76–89. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2014.07.011 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Addis DR, Wong AT, Schacter DL (2007) Remembering the past and imagining the future: common and distinct neural substrates during event construction and elaboration. Neuropsychologia 45(7):1363–1377. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.10.016 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Atance CM, Meltzoff AN (2005) My future self: young children’s ability to anticipate and explain future states. Cogn Dev 20(3):341–361. doi: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2005.05.001 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  4. Atance CM, O’Neill DK (2005) The emergence of episodic future thinking in humans. Learn Motiv 36(2):126–144. doi: 10.1016/j.lmot.2005.02.003 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Atance CM, O’Neill DK (2001) Episodic future thinking. Trends Cogn Sci 5(12):533–539. doi: 10.1016/S1364-6613(00)01804-0 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Baddeley A (2012) Working memory: theories, models, and controversies. Annu Rev Psychol 63:1–29. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-120710-100422 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Baddeley A, Hitch GJ (1974) Working memory. In: Bower G (ed) Recent advances in learning and motivation. Academic Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  8. Barnes JL, Baron-Cohen S (2012) The big picture: storytelling ability in adults with autism spectrum conditions. J Autism Dev Disord 42(8):1557–1565. doi: 10.1007/s10803-011-1388-5 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Buckner RL, Carroll DC (2007) Self-projection and the brain. Trends Cogn Sci 11(2):49–57. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2006.11.004 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Busby J, Suddendorf T (2005) Recalling yesterday and predicting tomorrow. Cogn Dev 20(3):362–372. doi: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2005.05.002 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Coughlin C, Lyons KE, Ghetti S (2014) Remembering the past to envision the future in middle childhood: developmental linkages between prospection and episodic memory. Cogn Dev 30:96–110. doi: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2014.02.001 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. D’Argembeau A, Ortoleva C, Jumentier S, Van der Linden M (2010) Component processes underlying future thinking. Mem Cogn 38:809–819. doi: 10.3758/MC.38.6.809 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. D’Esposito M, Postle BR (2015) The cognitive neuroscience of working memory. Annu Rev Psychol 66:115–142. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015031 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Gaesser B, Sacchetti DC, Addis DR, Schacter DL (2011) Characterizing age-related changes in remembering the past and imagining the future. Psychol Aging 26(1):80–84. doi: 10.1037/a0021054 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  15. Gathercole SE, Pickering SJ, Ambridge B, Wearing H (2004) The structure of working memory from 4 to 15 years of age. Dev Psychol 40:177–190. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.40.2.177 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Gott C, Lah S (2014) Episodic future thinking in children compared to adolescents. Child Neuropsychol 20(5):625–640. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2013.840362 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Han JJ, Leichtman MD, Wang Q (1998) Autobiographical memory in Korean, Chinese, and American children. Dev Psychol 34(4):701. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.34.4.701 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Hanson LK, Atance CM, Paluck SW (2014) Is thinking about the future related to theory of mind and executive function? Not in preschoolers. J Exp Child Psychol 128:120–137. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.07.006 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Hassabis D, Kumaran D, Maguire EA (2007) Using imagination to understand the neural basis of episodic memory. J Neurosci 27(52):14365–14374. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4549-07.2007 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  20. Hayne H, Gross J, McNamee S, Fitzgibbon O, Tustin K (2011) Episodic memory and episodic foresight in 3-and 5-year-old children. Cogn Dev 26(4):343–355. doi: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2011.09.006 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hill P, Emery LJ (2013) Episodic future thought: contributions from working memory. Conscious Cogn 22(3):677–683. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2013.04.002 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Hudson JA, Mayhew EM, Prabhakar J (2010) The development of episodic foresight: emerging concepts and methods. Adv Child Dev Behav 40:95–137. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-386491-8.00003-7 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jolliffe T, Baron-Cohen S (2000) Linguistic processing in high-functioning adults with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Is global coherence impaired? Psychol Med 30:1169–1187. doi: 10.1017/S003329179900241X CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. King D, Dockrell J, Stuart M (2014) Constructing fictional stories: a study of story narratives by children with autistic spectrum disorder. Res Dev Disabil 35(10):2438–2449. doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2014.06.015 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Marini A (2014) The development of narrative language in Italian-speaking school-aged children. Reti Saperi Linguaggi 1(1):85–108. doi: 10.12832/77498 Google Scholar
  26. Marini A, Ruffino M, Sali ME, Molteni M (2017a) The role of phonological working memory and environmental factors in lexical development in Italian-speaking late talkers: a one year follow up study. J Speech Lang Hearing Res (in press) Google Scholar
  27. Marini A, Ferretti F, Chiera A, Magni R, Adornetti I, Nicchiarelli S, Vicari S, Valeri G (2017b) Episodic future thinking and narrative discourse generation in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (under review) Google Scholar
  28. Miyake A, Friedman NP, Emerson MJ, Witzki AH, Howerter A (2000) The unity and diversity of executive functions and their contributions to complex “Frontal Lobe” tasks: a latent variable analysis. Cogn Psychol 41:49–100. doi: 10.1006/cogp.1999.0734 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Okuda J, Fujii T, Ohtake H, Tsukiura T, Tanji K, Suzuki K et al (2003) Thinking of the future and past: the roles of the frontal pole and the medial temporal lobes. Neuroimage 19(4):1369–1380. doi: 10.1016/S1053-8119(03)00179-4 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Piolino P, Desgranges B, Belliard S, Matuszewski V, Lalevee C, de La Sayette V et al (2003) Autobiographical memory andautonoetic consciousness: triple dissociation in neurodegenerative diseases. Brain 126:2203–2219. doi: 10.1093/brain/awg222 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Piolino P, Hisland M, Ruffeveille I, Matuszewski V, Jambaque I, Eustache F (2007) Do school-age children remember or know the personal past? Conscious Cogn 16:84–101. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2005.09.010 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Prabhakar J, Coughlin C, Ghetti S (2016) The neurocognitive development of episodic prospection and its implications for academic achievement. Mind Brain Educ 10(3):196–206. doi: 10.1111/mbe.12124 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Raven JC (1938) Progressive matrices: a perceptual test of intelligence. Lewis, LondonGoogle Scholar
  34. Riva V, Cantiani C, Dionne G, Marini A, Mascheretti S, Molteni M, Marino C (2017) Working memory mediates the effects of gestational age at birth on expressive language development in children. Neuropsychology 31(5):475. doi: 10.1037/neu0000376 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Schacter DL, Addis DR (2007) The cognitive neuroscience of constructive memory: remembering the past and imagining the future. Philos T R Soc B 362(1481):773–786. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2007.2087 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Schacter DL, Addis DR, Buckner RL (2007) Remembering the past to imagine the future: the prospective brain. Nat Rev Neurosci 8(9):657–661. doi: 10.1038/nrn2213 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Schacter DL, Addis DR, Hassabis D, Martin VC, Spreng RN, Szpunar KK (2012) The future of memory: remembering, imagining, and the brain. Neuron 76(4):677–694. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.11.001 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Schacter DL, Benoit RG, Szpunar KK (2017) Episodic future thinking: mechanisms and functions. Curr Opin Behav Sci 17:41–50. doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.06.002 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Siegel LS (1994) Working memory and reading: a life-span perspective. Int J Behav Dev 17:109–124. doi: 10.1177/016502549401700107 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Suddendorf T, Busby J (2005) Making decisions with the future in mind: developmental and comparative identification of mental time travel. Learn Motiv 36(2):110–125. doi: 10.1016/j.lmot.2005.02.010 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Suddendorf T, Corballis MC (1997) Mental time travel and the evolution of the human mind. Genet Soc Gen Psychol Monogr 123(2):133–167PubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Suddendorf T, Corballis MC (2007) The evolution of foresight: what is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans? Behav Brain Sci 30(03):299–313. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X07001975 PubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Szpunar KK, Watson JM, McDermott KB (2007) Neural substrates of envisioning the future. PNAS 104(2):642–647. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0610082104 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  44. Tulving E (1972) Episodic and semantic memory. In: Tulving E, Donaldson W (eds) Organization of memory. Academic Press, New York, pp 381–403Google Scholar
  45. Tulving E (2002) Episodic memory: from mind to brain. Annu Rev Psychol 53(1):1–25. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135114 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Tulving E (2005) Episodic memory and autonoesis: uniquely human? In: Terrace HS, Metcalfe J (eds) The missing link in cognition: origins of self-reflective consciousness. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 3–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Vicari S (2007) PROMEA: Prove di memoria e apprendimento. Giunti Organizzazioni Speciali, FirenzeGoogle Scholar
  48. Wang Q, Koh JBK (2015) How will things be the next time? Self in the construction of future events among school-aged children. Conscious Cogn 36:131–138. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2015.06.013 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Wang Q, Capous D, Koh JBK, Hou Y (2014) Past and future episodic thinking in middle childhood. J Cogn Dev 15(4):625–643. doi: 10.1080/15248372.2013.784977 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Wechsler D (1993) Manual for the Wechsler intelligence scale for children-III. Psychological Corporation, San AntonioGoogle Scholar
  51. Willoughby KA, Desrocher M, Levine B, Rovet JF (2012) Episodic and semantic autobiographical memory and everyday memory during late childhood and early adolescence. Front Psychol 3:1–15. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00053 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Zavagnin M, De Beni R, Borella E, Carretti B (2016) Episodic future thinking: the role of working memory and inhibition on age-related differences. Aging Clin Exp Res 28(1):109–119. doi: 10.1007/s40520-015-0368-6 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Marta Olivetti Belardinelli and Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • F. Ferretti
    • 1
  • A. Chiera
    • 1
  • S. Nicchiarelli
    • 1
  • I. Adornetti
    • 1
  • R. Magni
    • 2
  • S. Vicari
    • 2
  • G. Valeri
    • 2
  • A. Marini
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Cosmic Lab, Department of Philosophy, Communication and Performing ArtsRoma Tre UniversityRomeItaly
  2. 2.Department of Neuroscience, Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatry Unit Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital, IRCCSRomeItaly
  3. 3.Department of Languages and Literatures, Communication, Education, and SocietyUniversity of UdineUdineItaly
  4. 4.Claudiana - Landesfachhochschule für GesundheitsberufeBozenItaly

Personalised recommendations