Research Interests

Consider the following tasks: imagining your next vacation, writing a manuscript on a topic outside of your area of expertise, and using flash cards to learn a foreign language. Though seemingly disparate, these tasks all depend on the same flexible memory system that allows us to combine products of our memories with each other and with the outside world to assemble something new. My research explores how this ability provides the foundation of a memory system that does more than let us relive the past; it prepares us for the future. My aims are to understand how this flexible memory system works, how differences among individuals modify this flexibility, and how we can use what we know about memory to improve education.

Imagining the Future

One of the most basic things we can do to prepare for the future is to imagine what that future may be like. The flexibility built into our memories allows us to take different elements from different memories and reassemble them to create something new: an image of future, not-yet-experienced events (episodic future thought; see McDermott, Szpunar, & Arnold, 2011 for a review).  For example, imagine sitting down to your next Thanksgiving dinner. The mental images you can conjure likely involve memories of past Thanksgivings, family and friends, and your host’s dining room. All of these elements are familiar, yet the mental image is of a new event that has not happened.

My research has shown that locations are particularly important for creating these types of mental simulations. When people imagine events in unfamiliar settings, that is, settings in which they do not have personal experiences to draw from, their future events are imagined less vividly (Arnold, McDermott, & Szpunar, 2011a). Imagining a future Thanksgiving in the same dining room where you have celebrated the holiday for the last decade can be imagined more vividly than a future Thanksgiving in a new house that you have not yet seen. Imagining a generic dining room still draws on memories for your gist of what a dining room should look like, but without a specific dining room to imagine, the mental image is less clear. This is why future events imagined in the far future, where you are more likely to imagine an event in unfamiliar settings, are typically less vivid than those imagined in the near future, even though all future events are mental constructions of events that have not happened.

No matter where the event is imagined to occur, some people imagine future events more vividly. I found that people who are more future oriented, or those who tend to have a stronger concern for the future and engage in more planning are more likely to vividly feel as though they are pre-living future events (Arnold, McDermott, & Szpunar, 2011b). Interestingly, these same people are also more likely to vividly feel as though they are re-living past events, which shows that not only do we use memories to construct future events, but also that we use the same mechanisms to both imagine the future and remember the past.

However, imagining your own future is not the only way you may use memories to construct new mental events. For example, you could imagine another person doing something in the past or future. I plan on extending my research to these other kinds of mental constructions. Two different traditions – one coming from episodic memory and one coming from autobiographical memory – make different predictions about whether or not imagining your own future or past is fundamentally different than imagining other kinds of events. Comparing and contrasting the many kinds of mental simulations and how they relate to memory can potentially answer fundamental questions about how memory works.


Another important way we prepare for the future is by learning. Writing is often used as a means to enhance learning and typically involves combining what we remember with new information to create a new product. As teachers we have all seen that students can take wildly different approaches to the same writing assignment. Some students write well-organized and cohesive essays, whereas other students write a jumble of unconnected sentences. My approach to studying writing is to ask how interactions between task constraints and a student’s approach to writing affects learning.

Specifically, I examine how writing engages cognitive processes such as retrieval, organization, and elaboration. Of these, I believe that retrieval is particularly important for learning. Recalling information puts memory into a labile state, rendering it vulnerable to change and easier to retrieve in the future (i.e., the testing effect; for a review see McDermott, Arnold, & Nelson, 2013). Writing tasks that encourage students to retrieve information, that is, tasks where students cannot reference the source material while writing, enhance performance on later tests (Arnold, et al., under review).

Writing can also enhance learning by encouraging students to make new connections across ideas by reorganizing and elaborating on the material. Indeed, the more students make these kinds of connections in their writing, the better they are able to remember content on a delayed test (Arnold et al., under review). I plan on extending this research in new ways such as by investigating how these different cognitive processes interact with each other to affect learning. For example, because retrieval makes memory liable, does this process enhance the effect of reorganization on learning?

Importantly, there are individual differences that make a student more or less capable of taking advantage of these cognitive processes. For example, students who are more skilled at building mental models as they read also write more organized and detailed essays, leading to more learning (Arnold, et al., under review). This ability also affects learning outside of the laboratory in college classrooms (Arnold, Daniel, Jensen, McDaniel, & Marsh, 2016), suggesting it has a broad impact on learning.

Another important difference may be age; younger students are less experienced writers and therefore may not be able to learn as much from writing essays. With this in mind, I am currently extending this research to high school students. This extension satisfies funding requirements from the Department of Education to include K-12 students and will be useful in acquiring future grants.

In future studies, I would like to test interventions that provide support for individuals who have trouble learning from writing. I will target the interventions to support the type of processing, such as retrieval or organization, that my research shows these individuals do not use effectively.

Retrieval Failure

For retrieval during writing to benefit learning, students must be able to remember the content, but sometimes memory fails. However, trying but failing to remember can itself enhance learning; a memory search prepares you to learn, allowing you to more easily combine what you do know with new information to assemble a new, enhanced memory (test-potentiated learning; Arnold & McDermott, 2013a,b). 

My research has explored why retrieval failure enhances learning. One straightforward possibility is that failing to retrieve something teaches you to study more or differently (metacognition). Indeed, I have shown that retrieval failure changes study behavior and that this leads to improved learning (Arnold & McDermott, in prep).

However, an even more theoretically interesting possibility is that a deliberate change in study behavior is not necessary. Rather, retrieval failure prepares you to learn through more automatic means. Specifically, using fMRI, I have shown that when given the opportunity to study something after a retrieval failure, you are more likely to be “reminded” of your prior experience with that item (Nelson, Arnold, Gilmore, & McDermott, 2013). This reminder helps connect your prior experience with a new study trial, which enhances learning. In my future work, I would like to explore this hypothesis further. For example, is a reminder necessary to benefit from retrieval failure? That is, if learners are not reminded of their prior experience, will they still benefit from retrieval failure?

Funded by a grant I was awarded from the Spencer Foundation, a private foundation that supports research in education, I am exploring the educational implications of retrieval failure. Reading comprehension is vitally important for education, and one of the largest hurdles to understanding complicated passages is lacking the necessary foundational knowledge. For example, a reader would have trouble understanding the role of ions in action potentials without first understanding what ions and neurons are. Reading comprehension could be improved by, before reading, asking students to attempt to retrieve these foundational concepts and providing feedback when retrieval fails. The goal is to efficiently teach students the background information they need and to do so in a way that helps them apply this knowledge while reading.

Future Directions

Each of these three areas (imagining the future, writing to learn, and retrieval failures) has many open questions that I would like to further explore. However, these are not the only ways in which we combine memories with each other and the outside world to assemble something new, and in my future research I plan on extending myself to new areas. For example, people tend to remember things they are curious about, but very little work has explored why this is the case, why curiosity arises in the first place, and what the best way is for educators to take advantage of this finding. I plan on exploring the role of prior knowledge in curiosity as a means to answering these questions. Curiosity may encourage combining prior knowledge with new information (i.e., elaboration), thus creating a more durable and versatile memory. Prior knowledge may also lead to curiosity in the first place; having some baseline level of understanding and knowing that understanding is incomplete may be prerequisites for curiosity. Approaching curiosity from this unique perspective should provide new insights that will enhance both our basic understanding and educational applications of memory.