Research Shows Evidence of Mental Time Travel

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Movies like "Inception" follow the mind as it works in different levels of consciousness. In the movie, people travel through various levels of imagined reality. reports on a new study that shows evidence of a similar function in the human brain. Chronesthesia is the brain’s ability to be aware of the past and the future while mentally “traveling” to a subjective time frame. Experts are hopeful that these findings may pave the way to a greater understanding of the mysteries of the brain.

Chronesthesia was first defined by Dr. Endel Tulving, a University of Toronto professor emeritus and visiting professor in cognitive neuroscience at Washington University. Tulving has extensively researched memory since the 1950s. He proposes that chronesthesia is the brain’s ability to be constantly aware of the past, present and future.

As he explained to the American Psychological Association, not all kinds of memory are tied to time. According to Tulving, “You don't need mental time travel to remember a chemical formula or your mother's maiden name. 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." This can also be referred to as semantic memory, which is when facts are not tied to time. Episodic memory is time-related and knows when an event took place. When you recall the chicken dinner you had last night, you know you ate it last night. This is also called subjective time.

Apparently, our brain functions differently as we think about different concepts of time. Tulving, along with Lars Nyberg from Umea University in Umea, Sweden; Reza Habib from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill.; and Alice S. N. Kim, Brian Levine of the University of Toronto asked study participants to think about taking a short walk in what they termed the imagined past, the real past, the present, or the imagined future. As reports, researchers were able to see that different parts of the brain reacted when subjects thought about the past and future compared with the present.

As Tulving told, “I would say, the most important result of our study is the novel finding that there seem to exist brain regions that are more active in the (imagined) past and the (imagined) future than they are in the (imagined) present. That is, we found some evidence for chronesthesia. Before we undertook this study, it was entirely possible to imagine that we find nothing!”

Ultimately, Tulving believes chronesthesia is a result of evolution, when people learned that the lessons of the past could shape their future decisions. Hopes are that the continued study of chronesthesia will result in a greater understand of past and future thinking.

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