Psychology Ph.D. Dissertations

Is It Remembered or Imagined? The Phenomenological Characteristics of Memory and Imagination

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Richard Anderson (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Dale Klopfer (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

William O'Brien (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Katherine Brodeur (Other)


The phenomenological characteristics of memory are similar to those of imagination: Remembering the past and imagining the future share many subjective qualities. In part, this similarity may be attributable to the finding that the ability to construct a coherent scene underlies both remembered and imagined events (Hassabis & Maguire, 2007). However, prior studies have assumed that past events are remembered events, and future events are imagined events, whereas previous research from our lab has shown that people report future events being felt as remembered (Branch & Anderson, 2018). The proposed dissertation seeks to further define these feelings of remembering. What makes an event feel remembered, even if it has yet, and possibly might not, occur? In order to answer this question, participants in Study 1 recalled memories, imagined modifications to the central or peripheral objects contained within the representation of the memory for the event, and then imagined that modified event occurring either in the future or counterfactual past. Participants rated the degree to which the modified event “feels as though I am remembering.” Our manipulation was successful in that participants reported modified events, regardless of temporal orientation, as being less remembered and more imagined than baseline events, providing evidence that there is a phenomenological distinction between remembering and imagining separate from past and future events. Participants in Study 2 recalled a past event, a counterfactual event, and a future event, and rated each event for the degree to which it contained a spatial layout, vivid objects and people of central and peripheral importance, and the degree to which the participant could decouple from the present and mentally travel through time to when the event had or would occur. Ratings of object and scene construction individually formed an index that, together with autonoesis, were used to predict the degree to which an event felt like a remembered experience. Object construction significantly predicted the degree to which a memory was felt as remembered, whereas autonoesis significantly predicted the degree to which future and counterfactual thoughts were felt as remembered. Feelings of remembering differed depending on the temporal orientation of the event: Past events were felt as remembered if objects were pictured, future events were felt as remembered if they were accompanied by feelings of pre-living, and counterfactual events were felt as remembered if they were accompanied by feelings of reliving and mentally time travelling. This study provides evidence that there is a phenomenological distinction between remembering and imagining, and this distinction differs as a function of time.