Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Master of Science




McRae, Ken


Spontaneous future and past events come to mind unintentionally. Previous research supports that environmental cues prompt spontaneous simulation, although the role of specific cues remains unaddressed. Previous work has found that involuntary autobiographical memories are generated in chained-event sequences, which refers to multiple, related events being generated consecutively. We addressed how event and location cues influence spontaneous future and past events, and whether future events occur in chains. In a boring vigilance task, 132 participants located a left-facing arrow amongst right-facing arrows. On 49 of 350 trials, participants encountered event or location cues. Ten times, participants audio-recorded off-task thoughts they felt comfortable sharing. Participants produced more future events for event than for location cues and produced more past events for location than for event cues. Unlike past chains, future chains occurred only for event cues. These results highlight how event and location cues contribute to the spontaneous simulation of events.

Summary for Lay Audience

Individuals frequently think of their own personal future and past events. Often, these events come to mind unintentionally, described as spontaneous or involuntary thoughts. Although unintentional, these events can be cued by environmental information (Berntsen, 2019). For example, one could be watching their favourite movie in their living room when the characters begin discussing the destination they are about to travel to. The characters’ discussion could spontaneously prompt an individual to think about their upcoming vacation. Similarly, as the characters enter an airport, the viewer may spontaneously remember the last time they were in an airport. This example illustrates how event (the characters’ discussion) and location cues (airport scene), may elicit spontaneous thoughts about future and past events. This question has been investigated in voluntary autobiographical memory studies in which participants are asked explicitly to generate specific memories (Sheldon & Chu, 2017). The present thesis extended that question to spontaneous future and past events, while also investigating whether cues influence how multiple, related events emerge consecutively, described as chained-event sequences (Mace et al., 2013). One hundred, thirty-two participants completed a boring vigilance task in which they located a left-facing arrow amongst right-facing arrows. Participants encountered occasional cues, either events (take a flight) or locations (airport). Ten times during the 1-hour study, participants audio recorded any thoughts that they felt comfortable sharing. Future events were prompted more frequently by event than location cues, and were produced in chained-event sequences only when prompted by event cues. Past events were more frequently elicited by location than event cues, and occurred in chains for both types of cues. Together, these results indicate that the types of events that spontaneously emerge are dependent on what information is available in the environment.