Source: Episodic Memory and Time Travel: Chronesthesia

Chronesthesia, or mental time travel, is a mental ability first hypothesized by Endel Tulving in the 80’s. This refers to the ability to be aware of one’s past or future. While many may describe it as uniquely human, others now argue that this ability can transcend to include non-human animals as well as birds. The mechanisms of mental time travel are not yet fully understood since there is a level of obscurity and complexity when trying to measure if or when someone underwent mental time travel or not. However, studies have been conducted to map out areas of the brain that may be responsible for mental time travel.

Chronesthesia is defined as a hypothetical ability that allows humans to be constantly aware of the past and the future.[1]Endel Tulving, one of the pioneers in this field, explained that humans adapted chronesthesia as a way to advance their survival.

Some people may go further as to say that it is a crucial ability for humans.[2] There seems to be some confusion about the definitions of episodic memory, memory for the future, and mental time travel. Episodic memory involves projecting oneself back in time and recollecting many aspects of previous experiences.[3] Mental time travel is more robust when planning for the future than for re-experiencing past events. This makes sense since it is the present and the future, and not how the past is represented, that matter. Therefore, mental time travel involves both past and future thinking, while episodic memory only deals with mentally traveling to the past.

With regards to memory for the future, this is actually a subcategory of mental time travel.

Memory for the future refers to the ability to use memory to picture and plan future events. It is a subcategory of “mental time travel” which Suddendorf and Corballis described to be the process that allows people to imagine both past and potential future events. Mental time travel into the future has been discovered to use the same processes as mental time travel into the past or recall. There are two ways that we can use our memory for the future. The first is by using episodic memory and is therefore named “episodic future thinking”. [1] The second is by using semantic memory, also known as “semantic future thinking” .[2] Prospective memory can be seen as a subtopic of memory for the future, as it involves remembering to carry out some action that has been previously thought of, without needing an explicit reminder. [2] There are three distinct processes; to develop, to remember, and to remember to execute the plan in the future. Developing the plan is most linked to the topic of memory for the future. Memory for the future may be used to choose how we will remember to perform the intended action.[2] Memory for the future is the most flexible aspect of our memory based system and comparing humans to other nonhuman animals has led researchers to the belief that it is also the most recently evolved process of the memory system. [3] Having the ability to mentally travel forward in time is an important tool that allows humans to adapt to and prepare for future events.

What makes mental time travel possible? Psychologist Endel Tulving offered a theory on our uniquely human ability to act today based on our past and future.

By BRIDGET MURRAY, Monitor Staff
October 2003, Vol 34, No. 9, Print version: page 62

Remembering, to most of us, means recalling a past occurrence. But to Endel Tulving, PhD, the mechanisms of memory evoke the future as well. The reason? Memory allows us to mentally travel backward in time as well as into the future, explained Tulving, a University of Toronto professor emeritus and visiting professor in cognitive neuroscience at Washington University, in a presidential invited address at APA’s 2003 Annual Convention in Toronto.

Tulving’s theory stems from extensive memory research he’s conducted since the 1950s at Toronto, Yale University and the Toronto-based Rotman Research Institute–and, he said, others’ research supports it too. He proposed an official term for, and definition of, what makes such mental time travel possible:
Chronesthesia–A hypothetical brain/mind ability or capacity, acquired by humans through evolution, that allows them to be constantly aware of the past and the future.

Of course, Tulving noted, not all forms of memory–and there are many–are time-related. The “episodic” kind, involving recollection of past personal experience, is, he said. But the “semantic” kind, involving acquisition, retention and retrieval of facts, is not.

“You don’t need mental time travel to remember a chemical formula or your mother’s maiden name,” he explained. “You can know a lot of things without mental time travel, but you can’t remember events from your past, or anticipate your future, without it.”

Tulving went on to explain how and why humans have adapted chronesthesia–a learned capability absent in other animals and human infants–to advance their survival. And he urged other psychologists to help build a research base on its workings.

Time travel’s benefits

Over time, said Tulving, people discovered that recalling past events helped them learn what to avoid and how to behave in the future–its key feature, he said. In social relationships, for example, it enabled them to distinguish friends from foes; in the occupational and food-gathering arenas, it helped them to develop tools that worked well and to discard ones that didn’t.

The higher-order process of chronesthesia, he explained, allows people to update information critical to surviving, thriving and dealing with changes in their world. In addition, it aids semantic memory by attaching personal stories to facts, giving people’s experiences temporal and emotional dimensions, which make them more believable.

Nothing makes such benefits of chronesthesia more apparent than studying people who have suffered brain damage that impairs their mental time travel ability but does not affect other cognitive functions, said Tulving. He related the case of an amnesiac man, “K.C.,” who had sustained multiple brain lesions, including hippocampal lesions, in a motorcycle accident. The patient could solve math problems, but he couldn’t remember ever taking a math class, or, for that matter, couldn’t recall how he came to Tulving’s office for an interview. Similarly, the patient knew from semantic memory that his family owned a lake house two hours away. But he had no memory of ever visiting it, and no idea when he’d likely return there.

The patient was missing the “human ability to project our own past into the future,” said Tulving. That ability, he believes, has enabled us to create and pass down a wealth of cultural knowledge through the generations, including how to: Plant seeds. Provide the dead with grave goods–weapons, ornaments, utensils and the like that are buried with the dead for their use in the afterworld. Make and keep records. Formally educate the young (to benefit them in the future). Create gods and invent ways of pleasing them. Explore the stars.

Brain basis? As for hard scientific evidence of chronesthesia’s existence, there’s “zero, none, very little–it’s just an idea,” said Tulving. But, he said, emerging imaging research promises to help shed light on its brain mechanisms and has already suggested that higher-order thinking regions, such as the prefrontal cortex, are involved. He admonished, however, that no function–chronesthesia or any other–“holds a particular seat in the brain; it’s all over the place.”

In addition, said Tulving, thought experiments and studies in developmental psychology and psychopharmacology, to name just a few areas, could begin to build a research base on what “pastness” has in common with “futureness.” After all, he said, “The kind of culture that Homo sapiens have created over the past 40,000 years or so can be produced only by individuals whose intelligence includes conscious awareness of the future in which they and their progeny will continue to live and survive.”

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