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Dr. Cristina Atance: Associate Professor, Psychology; Director, Graduate Training in Experimental Psychology, University of Ottawa (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2015/01/15


Part two of two, interview with Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa and director of graduate training in experimental psychology, Dr. Cristina Atance.  In it, she discusses: Episodic Future Thinking (2001), ‘semantic memory’ and ‘episodic memory’, Tulving (2001), and five subsidisciplines; The emergence of episodic future thinking in humans (2005), future episodic thinking, and emergence of episodic future thinking in children between the ages of 3 to 4; numerous five-figure grants since 2011 provided under the titles of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Early Career Research Award, and responsibilities; three issues – Women in Academia and thoughts on being a female academic; emotional struggles and advice for young female academics; and take-home message of the research.

Keywords: Dr. Cristina Atance, episodic future thinking, psychology, semantic memory, University of Ottawa.

10. In Episodic Future Thinking (2001), you build on the idea of episodic memory with the introduction of a new construct called “episodic future thinking.” The paper distinguishes between ‘semantic memory’ and ‘episodic memory’.  As you examine in further depth than here, Tulving (2001) described episodic memory as the ability to “travel backwards in time” to experience one or a set of memories once more; he described semantic memory as the “knowledge of the world.” Of note for the operational definition of episodic future thinking, imagination and projection into the future do have constraints.  In the paper, you outline five subdisciplines of psychology of import for the construct in addition to the emergence of this capability in children.  What five subdisciplines?  How does the construct connect to each?  What developments have been made in the last 13+ years?

The 5 sub-disciplines we covered (though very cursorily) were “cognition,” “social and personality psychology,” “clinical psychology,” “neuropsychology,” and “development.” Our aim was mostly to point out how the ability to mentally pre-experience our own personal futures might have implications for such abilities as prospective memory (e.g., remembering to mail a letter), for example. We also highlighted some research in neuropsychology that we found quite intriguing – namely, people who, due to brain injury, seemed to lose the ability to think about their own personal futures (i.e., episodic future thinking), while retaining fairly intact semantic future thinking – so thinking about the future in a more knowledge-based and non self-related way (e.g., predicting what medical breakthroughs might happen in the next 10 years). There have been quite a few new developments in the area of episodic future thinking in the past decade – one of the most significant being that – perhaps not surprisingly – the capacity to think about our future relies on  many of the same neural and cognitive processes as remembering our past/memory. Most notably, people have argued that our memories provide us with a database from which we draw to construct our futures. What needs to be worked out is the extent to which different forms of memory (e.g., episodic, semantic, etc.) play a role in this process.

11. In The emergence of episodic future thinking in humans (2005), four years after Episodic Future Thinking, your paper coauthored with Professor Daniela O’Neill providing additions to the research on future episodic thinking. At the time, most research for the construct at the time dealt within the context of memory; not much to do with future thinking.  You broke ground there.  Discussion in the article states the fact of children at two years old will talk of past events. You provide estimations for the emergence of episodic future thinking in children between the ages of 3 to 4.  Some argued up to the time of publication about the high end of the estimated range of 4 years for the eventual emergence. How did you test for incorporation of notions regarding self and future in children?  What did you find in the research?

In this article, we really focused more on this capacity from a developmental perspective and tried to highlight that episodic future thinking can be thought of as different than related concepts such as “planning” or “imagination.” For example, we often just envision ourselves in the future (e.g., thinking about lying on the beach during our next vacation) without necessarily planning for that event/scenario that we’re envisioning. Though, of course, fundamental to most of the planning that we do is the ability to actually envision ourselves in the future or, episodic future thinking. As for imagination, it seems quite intuitive that we need some imaginative capacity to mentally project into the future but the concept of “imagination” itself is a much broader one that episodic future thinking. That is, we can imagine just about anything (e.g., traveling to the moon) but this is different from episodic future thinking which O’Neill and I argued is “constrained” by our current self/situation (in my case, I will likely never make it to the moon but I can certainly imagine it!). We tried to incorporate “self” and “future” by asking children to think about going on a trip and choosing items to bring with them. We purposely gave them items (like Band-Aids) that would be useful if they got hurt, say. Even the 3-year-olds in our study were starting to explain their choices my making reference to the future, and this ability continues to improve during the preschool years.

12. In My future self: Young children’s ability to anticipate and explain future states (2005), you coauthored with Professor Andrew Meltzoff. In two experiments with 108 three, four, and five years olds, for the first experiment, you attempted to have these children think about the future through stories and pictorial scenes.  Asking the children to think of themselves in these scenarios, you observed developmental differences for correct item choices and spoken explanations.  For the second experiment, 3 and 4 year old children had worse performance based on the introduction of items with semantic association to the scenarios without addressing the future state – not so for the 5 year olds.  How does this relate to the current research of future thinking in children?  What about the other areas of research for you, namely: cognitive development and theory of mind?

What we tried to argue in this paper – that also reflects some of my current thinking – is that even 3-year-olds were pretty good at selecting an item that they may need in the future (e.g., sunglasses if they’re walking on a sandy beach). However, when one of the options we presented alongside the correct item was “semantically” or “thematically” related to the future scenario – so a seashell presented alongside the sunglasses – younger children (but not 5-year-olds) were prone to select this item even if wouldn’t really be useful in the future. This may be because young children’s primary tendency is to select “what goes with what” rather than think ahead about what might actually be needed in the future.

13. You have earned numerous five-figure grants since 2011 provided under the titles of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Early Career Research Award. If any, what responsibilities do academics have towards society?  In light of the grant, award, and other funding, what further responsibilities and duties weigh into your conscience?

I, for one, would like to do a better job disseminating my findings to the segments of society who can most make use of them – in my case, parents and early childhood educators. Yet, this is challenging because I think most academics are pretty strapped for time due to the many demands of our jobs (i.e., teaching, research, administration, etc.). Nonetheless, one of my main goals for the next little while is to try and put in place some kind of knowledge translation/dissemination plan. I recently found out that a colleague of mine requires that, for each article from her lab that is published in an academic journal, an effort needs to be made to disseminate its findings to a local media source (e.g., parenting magazine, local organization, etc.).

14. I had the privilege to conduct for one year – in three issues – Women in Academia. One series based on female academics, their research and philosophies, and experiences. In a later retrospective conversation with one of the interviewees last summer, she would have liked to expound through one or two questions on the perspective of a female academic from the side of emotional struggles.  This seems relevant to me.  If I may ask, and if within your recollection of academic experience in both training and work, did you feel a different progression and experience compared to men in your cohort training in psychology from undergraduate through post-doctoral work?  Do you notice any differences in fresh generations of female academics-in-training?

I think about these kinds of issues a lot and yet I don’t think that my progression or experience has been greatly affected by being a woman. This may be partly because I went to graduate school, did my post-doc, secured a tenure-track position, and was awarded tenure before having my two children. In my case, at least – because I don’t want to over-generalize or mis-represent others’ experiences – I gained a lot of momentum during my post-doc and first 5 years of my professorship. I was able to put in time at night and on the weekends that I cannot do as much anymore because I have two young children at home and I will not trade my time with them for work time. Yet, I’m probably more productive now than I was 5 years ago because I’ve laid down the necessary foundation to allow the research to get done (e.g., my lab is functional and efficient, I have a good team of undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral students, etc.). I have also learned to delegate more and to only embark on projects that I’m really passionate about. As for whether I notice any difference in female-academics in training, this is a difficult question…I certainly think that some of the female graduate students with whom I interact are concerned about whether they can be academics and still have families and lives outside of work. But, to be honest, I think this is something that male academics and those in training are also thinking seriously about because many of them do want to be involved, hands-on fathers. Both within and outside of academia, I think many of us are really struggling with figuring out how to fit everything in and how to achieve some sort of “balance” (if this even exists!). And, to complicate matters, there are so many mixed messages that I think females, especially, are receiving. You’ve got Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO) who’s telling women to “lean in” and then others who are telling women to “recline”! Both points of view have merit in my opinion and it’s up to any one individual to figure out for herself or himself when it’s time to lean in and when it’s time to recline. There’s no right or wrong answer, yet getting to a point where you feel satisfied with your approach is difficult and in constant need of evaluation.

15. If so, how did you manage the emotional struggles? Any advice for younger female academics from fresh generations – taking into account differences of general trends in culture and generational traits?

I would say that if you love being a graduate student and you’re passionate and interested in your research and can see yourself heading up a lab/research group, teaching, doing administrative work, etc. then don’t shy away from this career. I won’t lie and say it’s easy but I think most of us love our jobs and are energized by what we do. I certainly don’t want to say (like others have in the past) that “you can have it all!” (i.e., work, family, etc.) because, in my view, yes, you can have it all, but having it all is pretty darn exhausting at times! To the extent that it’s possible, I would really advise thinking long and hard about what you want from life and then try to tailor your academic position accordingly.

16. What do you consider the ‘take-home’ message of your complete research program to date? Where do you intend to take this into the future?

Wow, tough to be brief here! At this point, I think the biggest take-home message is simply that our capacity to think about our personal futures (i.e., episodic future thinking) figures into many domains of our lives and may, ultimately, either be connected to, or lie at the root of, numerous adaptive behaviours such as those involving saving, pro-sociality, morality, etc. Because of this, developing means to measure future thinking in development and beyond is a worthy venture, as is eventually determining whether/how future thinking is connected to many of the behaviours (some that I have listed) that epitomize what it means to be human. As such, one of my next steps is to try to look more closely at some of these potential links. In addition, most of the work on future thinking has really involved children’s/adult’s ability to contemplate their own personal futures. However, we also think about other people’s futures (especially those individuals with whom we are close) and I’m curious about how the processes involved in doing so are similar/different from thinking about our own futures, and how these develop in young children.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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